Coping with loss of loved ones in Covid times

The pain and sorrow at the loss of loved ones to Covid-19 has left countless families confronting a sense of utter hopelessness. Most have no support system, and even some of those who do are struggling to cope

Coping with loss of loved ones in Covid times

Renu Sud Sinha

Her voice sounds as blank as her life. Only the wavering notes betray the anguish that has permeated her being. Kerrein Sharma (28), a Panchkula-based lawyer, lost both her parents to Covid-19 last month in a span of four days between May 11 and 14. Her father, Dr Ajay Sharma, had come out of retirement in April to tend to patients at the government’s call and had contracted the virus in May while on duty. Soon, the family of three was infected. And her parents succumbed in quick succession. The world, as Kerrein knew it, had ceased to exist. Like every youngster, her mobile was once an extension of herself. “Now I don’t look at my phone for days as I know mom and dad are never going to call. I wish I had died with them. For 10 days after their death when I was struggling with severe Covid symptoms, I would pop a couple of sleeping pills at night so that if some complication happens, at least I would die without a struggle,” says the tearful youngster.

Unfortunately, Kerrein is not alone in her misfortune, as Covid-19 has hardly left anyone untouched by grief of loss. All across India, the virus and death have been all-pervasive, particularly in the second wave. People are mourning the loss of children, parents, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbours, acquaintances...

Delhi-based Archana Datta, former Doordarshan Director-General, lost two anchors of her life in a matter of a few hours. Her husband of 40 years, AR Dutta (68), who retired as director of the Ministry of Defence’s training institute, and her mother Bani Mukherjee (88) succumbed to Covid in the absence of oxygen and hospital beds on April 27-28. These couple of months have not been easy, as she, like many others, tries to rearrange the shattered pieces of her life into a semblance of normalcy.

Mitesh Jiwan Salunke (37) of Jalandhar can never have the comfort of any elderly presence ever in his life. In the past year, he has lost eight members of his family, including his mother, three maternal aunts, three maternal uncles and his young brother-in-law. His father had died five years back. With his business shut down and an ongoing struggle with severe post-Covid complications, his will to live has taken a severe beating. “I don’t have anyone to turn to for any advice,” says a sombre Salunke.

However, it’s Faridabad-based Vishwas (16) who has to bear the unkindest cut of destiny. An orphaned child with special needs, Vishwas was adopted 10 years ago by a childless couple, Jagpal and Bhagwanti. Both succumbed to Covid-19 in May, leaving Vishwas orphaned yet again. The child, mentally challenged and visually impaired, is currently lodged in Deep Ashram, Gurugram. “No one from the couple’s extended family is ready to keep him or pay for his care,” says an official of the social welfare department. “It has been nearly a month, Vishwas hasn’t uttered a word. Neither is he sleeping nor eating properly,” says his caretaker at the ashram.

Mohali-based Vaishali (29) has taken to sleeping on her mother’s side of bed, whom she lost to Covid-19 last month. Infected herself, Vaishali couldn’t perform her last rites. “When the hospital returned her personal articles, I’d keep touching her phone to my face, wanting to feel her presence, as I was not able to say goodbye.” Before she could process her grief, her brother Rahul (28), unable to cope with his mom’s death, disappeared earlier this month. With the help of police and her friends and family, Vaishali found him 10 days later in a state of utter fear and anxiety. The age difference between them may be just a year but this loss has forced her to grow up overnight.

As the second wave claimed a large number of lives of those in their thirties and forties, many children and teenagers have been either left to fend for themselves or forced to take on responsibilities too heavy for their young shoulders. There have been many instances of the loss of not just one parent but both.

Growing up overnight

Jashanpreet (18) of Tarn Taran hasn’t had any time to grieve his father Jaswinder Singh’s death last year. He may now have to drop college. Why? “Because the business is in a shambles. Our savings are exhausted. There’s no money to pay the labour. My mother is not educated. My sister is in Class XII and my grandparents are now dependent on me,” mumbles the teenager slowly, perhaps realising the enormity of his responsibilities.

Far away in a Kangra village, Class XI student Ashok (17) faces the same misery. Even though his paternal uncle is supporting him and his sister (7), Ashok wants to opt for a vocational course after Class XII. He wants to take up a job as soon as possible to take care of his sister, shelving his engineering dreams permanently.

Ranjit Singh (14) of a village near Ludhiana has been at the receiving end of life’s bitter realities for the past five years. “First his sister died in 2016, and then within a span of eight months he lost his parents to Covid-19 in March last year,” says Satinder Singh, his uncle, who’s looking after the orphaned teen now.

All of 21, Ankita from Karnal has had to put on the mantle of father and mother for her brothers, 17 and 14. She lost her father, a fruit vendor, in May last year to illness and her mother to Covid-19 in May this year. Abandoning her plans to study further, she has appealed to the district authorities for a job now.

Gurdaspur’s Anshuman Rampal (20) and his brother Arun (16) are facing a similar plight. Their father died a decade back. They lost their mother, Babita, an ASHA worker, to Covid-19 earlier this month. “She wanted us to be successful businessmen.” But with survival at stake, the duo has been knocking at the district authorities’ doors either for compensation or a job without much hope of getting any. According to rules, if a ‘frontline warrior’ dies due to Covid, he/she is entitled to compensation. However, in Babita’s case, no compensation was given as doctors claimed she died of a heart attack. An official, not wanting to be named, does admit that the heart attack could have been due to post-Covid complications but says a job or any aid is unlikely. To complicate matters further, her death is not covered under any insurance scheme.

Una’s Aman and his younger sister, too, are staring at an uncertain future. As their father died three years back, the 16-year-old had to perform the last rites of his Covid-positive mother in May this year. “My father was a naan-chana vendor. We couldn’t pay our shop’s rent of Rs4,000 last month and now it has been handed over to a helper.” The boy, who had dreams of joining the Army, says his priority now would be to educate and marry off his sister but is clueless about how to fulfil this huge responsibility that seems much beyond his years.

Old hands lighting young pyres

While these youngsters at least have the strength of youth to wade through their misery, on the other side of life’s pendulum are many elderly persons who have lost their middle-aged sons, daughters or daughters-in-law. This cruel twist of fate has forced them to take on the care of their young grandchildren.

Phillaur-based Pirthipal Singh (66) lost his only son to Covid last year, leaving his three grandkids, aged between seven and nine years, to his and his wife’s care. The kids’ mother had died five years earlier. Pirthipal and his wife have moved in with their eldest daughter based in a Jalandhar village, not able to take proper care of such small kids. There are financial constraints as well. “We do not have any savings. My daughter couldn’t pay her kid’s school fee so she could buy clothes for these kids. I did get a call from the government that my orphaned grandchildren are entitled to pension, transferrable to their account. But the bank won’t open their account. The bank people are asking for court documents to prove I’m their guardian. What am I supposed to do?”

Bimla Devi (55) of Gurana village near Hisar could not save her son Rajesh (35), as the family was too poor to afford his treatment when he contracted Covid in May this year. Now his three kids, aged 7, 9 and 12, are in the care of their grandmother. Many villagers and social organisations have since provided financial help and free education for the kids.

Another pandemic in making

With nearly four lakh Covid-19 deaths till now, mental health experts are warning of a different kind of epidemic, as psychologists and psychiatrists have been inundated with a large number of mental health cases due to unresolved trauma.

Ludhiana-based psychiatrist Dr Rajeev Gupta has been getting 13-14 such cases every month. “Families who have lost their breadwinners (aged 30-45) are going through the toughest time. The number of young widows coming for counselling is more, as most of them don’t have any emotional, financial and social support. In many instances, not only the in-laws but their own families have also abandoned them in the absence of resources,” he adds.

As affected people struggle in isolation with unprocessed grief, experts are predicting an alarming increase in the number of psychosomatic cases. They have dubbed this emerging syndrome as ‘post-Covid stress disorder’.

“Indian customs have always been community oriented, whether celebrations or mourning. All religions/communities usually have a 13-17 day mourning period that helps the affected family to grieve in the presence of relatives and friends and find some sort of closure. The Covid-19 protocols have put a stop to all this,” says Chandigarh-based psychiatrist Dr Simmi Waraich. “A nuclear setup, sudden loss of a seemingly healthy person, absence of family at cremations — these are bound to leave emotional scars. Zoom funerals aren’t helping either. The images remain etched in their mind, the digital ritual reinforcing the physical isolation,” she adds.

The absence or delay in rituals like ‘asthi visarjan’ or ‘tehravi’ has only added to the helplessness of many affected families, as many of these rituals may help in acceptance of reality.

Coping mechanisms

Among those who couldn’t deal with it at all was Reshma Trenchil (44), a former journalist, who jumped to death last week from her 12th floor flat in Mumbai, along with her seven-year-old son. She had been under severe depression after losing her husband Sarat Mulukutla (49) due to Covid-19 on May 23.

However, most survivors have developed some sort of a coping mechanism to deal with their loss.

Unable to face the loneliness of an empty home, Kerrein, still struggling with post-Covid complications, has gone to stay with a friend in Patiala, who lives in a joint family. “Whenever memories overwhelm me, I try to get busy in some work or go and talk to some family member.” However, a temporary stay there may keep her mind away from her grief but it is also a poignant reminder of what she has lost. She plans to have a houseguest, a colleague, or even a pet when she gets back to live through the next few months, till the normalcy of a routine life is able to dull the sharp ache in her heart.

A stoic Archana, on the other hand, has pushed her grief to the back of her mind and has decided to be a father to her children. “My kids have suffered enough. My daughter is yet to come out of shock. My niece is still struggling with post-Covid complications. And my son, who bore the entire trauma by himself — from rushing to the hospital to cremating his father and grandmother, needs an elder in his life.”

Chandigarh-based Harsharan Kaur (42), who lost her husband to Covid in September last year, found some solace in her spiritual beliefs and the karmic theory that the soul is indestructible. Some traditional rituals helped her and her two children in accepting their loss. “At the end of the 13th day, I wrote a letter to my husband about the things left unsaid, bidding goodbye to his soul,” she adds.

Salunke hasn’t considered counselling but is trying to find some peace by performing pooja at home. “That is the only way to cope,” he mumbles.

So what’s the way forward to heal collectively? There is a need to reach out to others as a community, say most mental health experts. They recommend just showing up and being around the affected persons.

However, they strictly advise to avoid inanities like “time heals” or “you should move on” or “put it behind you”. A silent support is the best option.

This is exactly what we need to do as a society — “listen without judging.”

— With inputs from Amit Bathla, Aparna Banerji, Deepender Deswal, Gurbaxpuri, Lalit Mohan, Manav Mander, Neha Saini, Parveen Arora, Rajesh Sharma, Ravi Dhaliwal, Ravinder Saini and Sumedha Sharma.

(Some names have been changed to protect identity)

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