How does one mourn during a global pandemic? I've asked myself this question numerous times since the onset of Covid-19. This entire year, we have been talking of nothing else but coronavirus—the symptoms, the various treatments, the "at risk" groups, the preventive measures, the fallout on the economy and more. Words like "lockdown", "the new normal" and "social distancing" have become crucial parts of our vocabulary, and we have followed the daily reports of infection rates and death tolls with morbid fascination. When you are constantly bombarded with these catastrophic numbers from around the world, it may have the unintended effect of the deaths being viewed through the lenses of a national tragedy rather than individual, deeply personal losses.
After Covid-19 entered our borders in March and made its way across the country, the personal stories started to reach us more. A childhood friend's grandmother, my neighbour for the last 20 years, my mothers' colleague, my sister-in-law's uncle—the net started to close in, and each time there were no rites, no funerals, no coming together of family and friends, just distant voices on telephones expressing their condolences as best as they could; and I continued to ask myself—what is it like, to grieve during a time like this?
Less than two weeks ago, I found out. My Boro Khala (my mother's eldest sister) died of a massive heart attack on July 9. One moment she was fussing about sending mangoes to her younger son's house, holding the eldest son's hand tightly in hers while he took his leave, and the next moment she was gone. How are we meant to mourn her?
In ordinary times, we would have accompanied her on her final journey to Sonargaon, where she was buried next to her husband. My mother and her remaining sisters would have comforted each other, like they did when my grandmother passed five years ago. Choto khala would have told us how when boro khala was a DU student on a scholarship, she would write letters to her family and send whatever little money she could, asking her mother to make sure "the little ones eat some eggs". Mejo khala would have told us how on her wedding day, boro khala slipped the bangles off her wrists on to her younger sister's empty ones so that she could "hold her head high when she went off to her new family."
Ma would have told us how boro khala was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship in the 80s, but because the circumstances of a mother, wife and eldest of six siblings being the way it was back then, she was forced to give up that dream. My cousins and I would have remembered how she would insist we drink warm milk when we were children and affectionately called us mynah pakhi, and maybe our memories would have plugged this gaping hole that she left behind by leaving us all, so unexpectedly.
While we have the many necessary conversations that are happening right now around the evils of coronavirus and its impacts on society, we must not forget the psychological burden of the pandemic, especially on those who have lost loved ones. Collective mourning is a huge part of our culture—we tend to mourn people for a full 40 days, and it's not just close family but relatives (near and distant), friends, neighbours, colleagues and even acquaintances, who play their part in providing some relief to the family members of the deceased. When I lost my grandmother, I remember feeling irritated at times at the constant stream of people coming and going from our house, bringing food, asking after everyone and offering words of comfort that sometimes felt too gratingly optimistic in a house of grief. But this time around, the silence this has been replaced with, is far more suffocating.
Grief can be an extremely isolating experience, but in a situation where you are already isolated, it takes on a whole new dimension. In an article in The Atlantic, psychotherapist Megan Devine pointed out that people are already feeling a lot of stress and anxiety during the pandemic, especially those who are caring for family members who are ill, or are suffering due to the economic downturn. This means the "emotional bandwidth" under which they are operating are already reduced, and losing a loved one in this scenario can get in the way of the "natural adaptive reaction" to grief—a painful but necessary mental recalibration to accommodate a new absence. In the same article, clinical psychologist Carmen Inoa Vazquez said, "people are very stressed, which could result in people having less patience, less understanding, less self-control when they're dealing with a loss together. And if a family loses a financial provider right now, that could add even more stress and again complicate the normal resolution of their grief."
A friend of mine who lost his mother to coronavirus, also spoke of feeling like he had been cheated—"Coronavirus took away my opportunity to say goodbye. I couldn't even be at her bedside in the Covid-19 isolation ward where she died. She was all alone; I can't forgive myself for that." According to grief expert David Kessler, this is the most likely reaction to have during the pandemic, since psychologically, we would rather feel guilty than helpless—"We need to find control. So our (way of taking) control is 'Well, I'm just going to be guilty about it'."
How do we take back control over the process of mourning during the pandemic? This isn't a question that anyone can easily answer. After 9/11, Devine discussed how some people felt that their personal losses were overshadowed by the national disaster. However, George Bonnano, a clinical psychology professor from Columbia University, wrote on how a national tragedy can amplify the feeling of helplessness and make grieving much harder, but in the long run, it may give people something to hold on to and reach a shared understanding of grief.
While Bangladesh still has a long way to go in taking mental health seriously, there is at least some more focus on it now, with different institutions and hospitals providing psychotherapy, who can consider incorporating grief counselling into their operations in the wake of the pandemic. Online platforms and other forms of media (for example, Radio Shadhin has a weekly counselling show) can be utilised to help people who are struggling with loss. As we come to terms with post-Covid-19 realities, we must also come up with new ways of expressing solidarity for those who are suffering.
In a way, my boro khala was lucky. She was not alone when she died. Her siblings were able to hold her hand, one last time. Her sons were able to carry her to her final resting place. There are now over 2,500 families in Bangladesh who never got to say this last goodbye—who are instead working harder than ever to keep themselves afloat, struggling to fight the virus themselves or are silently carrying on next to the empty space where their loved one used to be. They deserve every bit of our understanding and compassion during these dark times.
Shuprova Tasneem is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is @ShuprovaTasneem