“I remember being in bed that night when tears just started streaming down my face,” says Palav Kamdar Gandhi recalling her reaction to the news that her friend’s father had succumbed to COVID-19. Based in Madhya Pradesh, Gandhi is a counselling psychologist and psycho oncologist. She has worked with terminally ill patients and their caregivers before but the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a whole new set of challenges for counsellors like her.
There are no words that can accurately describe the grief that India is currently experiencing. It is not only about a sense of personal loss but collective trauma that people are experiencing via empathy. Families are losing their loved ones to the virus while they are helpless spectators to the unfolding of such events. The country is burning with a severe shortage of life-saving resources like hospital beds, medication and oxygen. Amid the helplessness, many who have the access and can afford it are turning to counsellors like Gandhi to better navigate the passage of immense grief and confusion that accompanies such a traumatic occurrence.
“There’s no space to grieve, most of these people don’t have the time,” remarks Gandhi. For people who are losing family members to the virus, often there are also others in the family who are infected or hospitalised that need to be taken care of. This leaves them with limited mental space to fully process the magnitude of the loss.
It’s normal to feel grief even if you haven’t lost anyone close to you, Gandhi says, pointing to the collective trauma that the country is going through currently. Simply being exposed to the innumerable number of deaths and the helplessness of people all around is sufficient to trigger our emotions. “You might think ‘I’m not losing anyone so why am I feeling like this?”, says Gandhi. It’s in our nature as human beings to respond in this manner to a situation like this, she shares.
The loss of community support
Aditi Ghatole usually works with people who have experienced trauma, usually children and adults who have gone through sexual abuse. But with the pandemic, the Nagpur-based counsellor has seen an influx of clients who are seeking help with navigating trauma associated with losing a loved one to COVID-19.
“Usually when you lose someone, people reach out to help so you and your family will have time to mourn,” says Ghatole. But under the current circumstances, the picture of death has completely transformed. Patients who pass away due to COVID-19 aren’t allowed to be brought home and need to be cremated or buried immediately after being shifted from the hospitals. “You don’t get to even see the body sometimes,” says Ghatole, so that feeling of closure is largely missing.
The number of people allowed to gather at funerals and homes is limited due to the protocols. Family and friends from other places also cannot travel due to lockdown restrictions. In many cultures, grieving families are advised to not cook for the first few days and are usually provided food from their friends and family. But with the risk of COVID-19 transmission, many are hesitant to offer a helping hand. As a result, grieving families now no longer have a support system and are sometimes even subject to the stigma associated with a COVID-19 death. Tackling the virus has proven to be difficult but dealing with the aftermath while being isolated is indeed devastating.
Ghatole shared that even for someone who hasn’t suffered a loss, there is a heightened sense of fear over their own lives or that of a loved one’s. Additionally, the fear of losing their livelihood continues to impact people who are already experiencing massive trauma.
“Apart from collective trauma there is also a high chance of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” says Gandhi. Ghatole points out that it is frontline workers who are bearing the brunt of it currently, but they’re working “on autopilot mode” to steer through the crisis. Counselling for frontline workers has come to the forefront once again after the recent suicide of a Delhi-based doctor. The said doctor was allegedly experiencing high levels of stress and depression after working in the COVID-19 ward for over a month.
“Right now we’re in the middle of a tornado, so it is not magnified right now,” Gandhi opines. She adds that it’s only once the pandemic settles for good that we will see the complete extent of its impact on people’s mental health.
Stages of grief and how to get through it
“There are five stages of grief,” says Gandhi, “They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.” Processing grief is not a linear journey through these stages, you can oscillate between these five depending on the individual, she shares. She points out that especially in India, people see outward expressions such as crying as proper ways to grieve. But she insists that it’s necessary for people to acknowledge that it can take on many forms. Both counsellors agree that if someone you know is going through a loss, let them know you’re there for them and that their response, whatever it may be, is normal and acceptable. Give yourself and others the space to grieve, Gandhi emphasises. “Give them space to feel what they’re feeling.”
If you are going through a difficult time and would prefer not to do so alone, Ghatole suggests surrounding yourself with people (even if it is just virtually). “Keep people accessible, even if it’s just small talk or surface-level conversations,” she says. Surely, having someone to vent out your frustrations and anger could be helpful.
While it might not seem like it right now, believe that it gets better, she comments. Her parting words of wisdom? “Focus on today, that really helps.”
(Edited by Sanhati Banerjee)