Death in a time of lockdown: Different ways to mourn

The increasing fear of Covid pandemic has forced society to reappraise the way of living from work to socialise to travel and so death. The process of funerals has changed and people have found different ways to mourn.

On the morning of 15 May, Mukesh was performing tonsure outside his house. People gathered in a scattered manner, some were sitting on the slabs of the closed shops on the main road and some standing here and there but none were seen standing close to Mukesh.

Mukesh lost his mother on 10 May 2020. A woman preparing things for the funeral told me that “Mukesh has to perform his mother’s last rites alone as his sister lives in another city and couldn’t come due to the nation-wide lockdown.”

She died a normal death but her last journey won’t be normal as the dead body lying on the floor with no one around—was unusual. 

“How do you console him (Mukesh) without hugging,” asked someone from the group of four. “The time isn’t good for anyone,” replied someone.

Mukesh was not seen crying instead he was sitting at a distance and gazing at the body of his mother. He lives alone in a 2bhk house in Mayur Vihar, New Delhi, India.

A few days later Mukesh spoke about the day. Taking a deep breath, he said, “I am feeling bad for my sister, she couldn’t even see her last time.”

Mukesh’s sister Rekha got married in November last year and shifted to Bangalore. So the last time she met her mother was before leaving the city with a promise to see her soon. “We lost our father at a very young age, so Maa was all we had. Now we lost her too. Every corner of this house reminds me of her,” shared Mukesh with teary eyes.

When asked, “How are you holding up now”, Muskesh adjusted his chair, folded his hands and stared ceiling of the room for minutes; it created a weird silence.

Breaking the silence, he said, “I never thought she would leave like this—without seeing my sister or other relatives. She was a people person and not a single person attended her last rites. In the past month, since the lockdown started I asked her not to visit people in general. She wanted to go to our village in Bulandshahr, (a district in Uttar Pradesh, 68 km away from Mukesh house) but I did not take her. I should have taken her to the village. She used to tell me that it was difficult for her to stay home all the time without meeting people and I always took it lightly. Now I understand how lonely she would have been. In the past few days, I haven’t even talked to my sister as I don’t know what to say. She tried her best to come but unfortunately couldn’t make it. And I don’t know what to tell her or how to console her. These days, I spent most of the time sitting on this chair, it used to be my mother’s favourite one. Even my friends couldn’t visit me fearing exposure of Coronavirus. Everyone is scared to go out or meet people and I too don’t want them to risk it. But being alone is eating me inside out.” 

Mukesh’s story underlines not how people die but how death itself is treated, processed or honoured in our world.

For 27-year-old Kuhoo it was very difficult to accept the fact that she has to deal with her father’s death all alone.

Kuhoo’s father died on 17 April 2020 due to bladder cancer in a private hospital in New Delhi. The loneliness of death in itself is difficult to carry and then the absence of relatives and friends makes it harder.

She said, “We are very much dependent on our close family members, relatives and friends. It was very difficult and weird because we haven’t adopted the mindset that we might have to deal with this sort of tragedy all alone.”

Since Kuhoo’s father was admitted to the hospital when Covid cases were increasing in the city; it was the reason that family and friends couldn’t visit her family fearing the exposure to Covid-19. “Initially, we were treated like Covid suspect and no one from close family members or relatives came except my two parental uncles and one maternal uncle. I was expecting the response would be like “we are coming straight there” or “we are running towards you” instead the reaction we got was “okay, so what next”. We had no clue what next had to be done because it is usually dealt by the senior family members only,” she said.

The immensity of the personal trauma that people go through could leave scars that last for years. Under the isolation of lockdown, the new ways of mourning without hugging, touching or people coming around could impact one’s mental health badly. 

Recalling the memories dismissal of her father, Kuhoo said, “After performing his last riots, coming back home was very difficult for three of us. The thoughts of the past days were scattered in our minds. I accepted the situation but didn’t get the time to grieve and it is not good for mental health. The next two-three days were very difficult for us. We didn’t know how to react. We wanted to cry, shout and that time we needed somebody to lean on and cry but unfortunately, there was no one. We felt betrayed and sad that nobody came. So we cried but limited expressing our emotions as we knew no one is going to be there to console us. Personally, I am running from the situation. It’s been more than two months but still, three of us haven’t sat together and talked about what all happened. That void of taking everything out with people has not been done yet. We mourn in different ways.”

It is not just the rituals of funerals that have been upended by coronavirus but also the precious last moments of contact with a dying relative.

Pankaj Sahni’s father died on 19 May in hospital with only intensive care nurses and doctors around him.

“I couldn’t visit my father for almost a month and his condition kept on worsening. When the restrictions were finally reduced a bit, I visited him but by then his condition deteriorated. He was in the ICU all alone and none of us near him,” said 53-year-old Pankaj.

Despite living only 9 km away, Pankaj could not step out to the house to take his father to a doctor in the first place. The vicious circle of thoughts are still haunting Pankaj, reminding him that he couldn’t be with his father when he needed him the most. He recalls that waiting out the ICU room for a video call from the attendant inside and how heartbreaking it was. 

Pankja’s daughter Vani shared her experience of watching her father longing for his grandfather’s death. She said, “I never saw my father like this. He was devastated when we heard of my grandfather’s illness and then too he could not visit him. I didn’t know how to console him. If the lockdown wouldn’t have been there it would have been easier for all of us to visit my grandfather.”

The pandemic has shifted the physical presence to video calls; the only way to overcome the frustration of not being with your loved one in their toughest time.

The 62-year-old Shyamal Dasgupta had a mental break down when his elder sister got hospitalised and he couldn’t visit her in the hospital due to the lockdown.

“My sister is like my mother as I have spent a larger time with her during my college days. Despite living just 20 minutes away from her and I still couldn’t paid her a visit; this thought was killing me inside out,” said Dasgupta.

Dasgupta was able to see her after she was discharged from the hospital. “When I saw her at home, it broke my heart. She was lying with oxygen support and was not able to talk to me. It is very hard for me to see her like this.”

Fearing that his sister might not survive this time, Dasgupta used to spend fighting the thoughts within him during the time she was admitted to the hospital. He recalled, “I could not visit her in her toughest time; this would always stay with me as a regret. Even though I visited her, I could not hug her or go closer; it was the weirdest feeling for me. I used to constantly walk in my house as my mind was puzzled with various thoughts. Reading books only helped me to keep myself sane.”

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