By Kamakshi Ayyar
You never think something bad is going to happen to you until it does, right? For the past year, I’d seen heartbreaking photos and clips of people saying their final goodbyes to their loved ones in hospitals through video calls. I couldn’t imagine what those families must have been going through—the anguish of not being by the side of their relatives and friends during their last moments.
Unfortunately, I got a dose of what that feels like last month when my granny was in the hospital, suffering from a kidney infection that got out of hand. She’d been on life support systems for a few days but when the doctors noticed no improvement they decided to take her off the ventilator. My dad called us on WhatsApp video from the ICU room so we could say goodbye. Because of COVID restrictions, only one person was allowed to visit Ammi for an hour a day during her stay at the hospital—my dad was that person. The call was, without a doubt, the most difficult one of my life.
The pain that followed was visceral. Sometimes I felt hollowed out, like someone had carved a chunk out of me. At other times I felt like I was carrying a 100kg weight on my chest. In the days after Ammi passed, the littlest things would set off bouts of crying — opening a dabba of banana chips that she’d made, finding her old handbag, trying to unsuccessfully remember the last thing she said to me.
Since her cremation I’ve been trying to understand what I’ve been going through. At least I knew what this feeling was called: grief. Having that knowledge as a starting point made Googling easier: What is grief? Is there science behind the pain that comes from losing someone?
During my research, I came across the popular concept of the five stages of grief suggested by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. According to Kubler-Ross, the grieving process can encompass various avatars of these emotions. But the thing is, I haven’t had the energy to introspect enough to know how these five stages fit what I’m going through. Or if they can even explain it. And seeing as how there is no right way or universal way of grieving, who knows, I may not even experience many of these emotions.
My Googling threw up something else—I learned that I might have been grieving long before Ammi passed. In my head, grief is synonymous with bereavement, which we experience when we lose someone we love. But an article titled That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief published in the Harvard Business Review in March 2020, suggested that my definition might be a myopic understanding of the emotion.
An interview with grief expert David Kessler threw up the idea that there are different kinds of grief. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, that could be collective and anticipatory grief. “The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively,” Kessler explained.
“Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety,” he added. In fact, Kessler has proposed an addition to the idea of the stages of grief—he added “meaning” as a way to remember “those who have died with more love than pain.” I haven’t got to that stage with regards to Ammi yet
My research offered some understanding of what I and many others have been feeling in the past year but have been unable to explain. It’s been debilitating and draining to watch the virus wreak havoc across the world. I struggled to wrap my head around how things were falling apart, trying to imagine when the pandemic might end, and to reconcile the privilege of having food on my table and a roof over my head when families were talking thousands of kilometres--without any support or resources--to get home. Having Kessler define my emotions gave them more legitimacy and concreteness—I was less likely to dismiss them as “feeling blah.”
As the pandemic continues to ruin lives in 2021, the feelings of grief, helplessness and hopelessness aren’t going anywhere. In fact, I’m not sure when they will diminish or if they will go away entirely. I’ve been trying to follow Kessler’s advice of letting go of what you can’t control and stocking up on compassion. It helps a bit.
What helps more is his suggestion of embracing sadness and not dismissing it in light of someone else’s misfortunes. Like he said, “Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us.”
Things working out “in an orderly way” or feeling somehow empowered seems unthinkable right now. But I'm taking things slowly and trying to process my grief. If you're struggling similarly, I hope you're kind to yourself and take things one day at a time.