I was walking past my parents—on my way to a late breakfast—when I heard them talk in hushed tones. This was highly unusual. Generally, when it comes to COVID related bad news, my parents have perfected it into an affectionate ritual: they shout it to down to each other across our living space. Ergo, I had to probe further into the cause behind their quietness. I learnt that my parents had received news that an acquaintance from our previous neighbourhood had succumbed to COVID-19. He was a father of two; my mother added, “that too only in his forties”. Apparently, my parents were trying to keep my grandmother from this morbid affair.
It took me some time to digest the news. Honestly, I could not even remember this old neighbour’s face—albeit I could picture his mother and brother’s face quite clearly—and yet I felt uneasy at the news of his demise. Later, in the evening as I looked around the hall, my family was sitting together watching their favourite Bengali soap opera about a ‘lady detective’, my throat felt dry, while I regurgitated the information.
Someone I had known passingly, had contracted a highly contagious virus that ultimately proved fatal, some 7 kms away from where we are. “Technically, it could happen to us too,” my brain whispered.
As a child, I remember asking my grandmother if she had memories of WWII or the Partition. Her mild replies were never quite dramatic or violent enough to suit my taste. I guess I was curious about what living during wartime felt like. The palpable tension hanging in the air, as if in a moment everything could change. Well, now I know enough. Thrill or not, through any global emergency death and loss, for one thing, remains a common leitmotif.
It is not that our world was at peace before the virus—there are wars still raging in pockets of the world without any end in sight, not to mention every conceivable transgression of human rights. But for the majority of the urban and privileged world—a section where I fall—a semblance of normalcy, what we call peacetime, has been the case since the middle of the twentieth century. Facing a disaster as a collective human race is a first for all generations that came since the baby boomers. The last global pandemic—Spanish Flu—happened about a century back, the memory of the last world war or that of the great partition in the Indian subcontinent is at least over seventy years old.
As our technology took massive leaps in every field including medicine, human life expectancy grew, and the mortal nature of our lives became almost a thing of the past. Not two centuries back, poets and artists were depicting the sobering struggle humans waged against death but not anymore. Industrialisation meant we had an excess of everything, and the new consumer was born. Everywhere one looked, brands and chains were cajoling the buyers to buy more and ‘celebrate life’—we have all seen variations of the “live life king size” message, after all.
All it took was a microscopic virus to bring into sharp relief how uncomfortable we are as a society with the idea of death.
While we were living and consuming at a breakneck speed the pandemic screeched our life to a halt. All it took was a microscopic virus to bring into sharp relief how uncomfortable we are as a society with the idea of death. As the virus continues on its natural progression, it might claim lives that can go up to figures of hundreds of thousands on a global scale. By this time next year, probably all of us will know people who suffered from the virus or succumbed to it, or face it ourselves. A prospect not sitting well with many of us.
In an insightful article on Harvard Business Review, David Kessler, co-author of “On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss”, argues that the uneasiness—that I experienced as well—while dealing with the idea of the virus affecting us or the world we live in might actually be grief. Kessler observes we are struggling with, “The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection.” The fact that we are going through these emotions as a global community makes them harder to handle as the support systems we generally used to rely on are themselves under strain.
In these state of affairs, chancing across the film “The Sky is Pink” (2019) was doubly meaningful. The film, about a couple in their fifties trying to survive the death of their second child, by no means was an easy watch. Then again it was necessary. The visceral force of the film was foremost due to the uncompromising vision of, Shonali Bose, the filmmaker. Having lost her firstborn Ishan when he was only 16, Bose does not shy away from the vulnerable bits associated with death.
“When we lose someone, nobody tells us to live that grief. We listen to music, meditate, go to the gym, but rarely do we sit down with our feelings and let it pass. We resist it because that’s what we are conditioned to do, and most of the time we never recover from the pain for this very reason,” she explains in an interview.
That the story was based on the real journey of Aisha Chaudhari, born with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) that led her to undergo complex medical procedures all her life, somehow made the experience even more life-affirming. Life-affirming? How can a film about death be life-affirming, one might think? Maybe because we occasionally confuse that phrase with denial of death. Maybe life and death are parts of a bigger cycle.
Aisha’s story helped restore my perspective. To begin with, take the example of her parents. They knew their daughter had significantly lesser time than them, yet they chose to go on that journey. To them life was not pointless because of death, life became precious because of it.
Besides, the anxiety we have towards death is not logically warranted either. Certain philosophers and thinkers would argue we are not really afraid of death because we do not actually experience it in life. Ludwig Wittgenstein had famously observed, “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.”
Instead, the fear of death belies something else. Psychologists say the idea of death is tied to other concepts in the human psyche. For instance, my anxiety of death comes from the fear of the unknown, not knowing what death is like. In other words, death manifests as the fear of change—small or drastic—or the idea that we can lose control of our narratives. A dread of being unsettled from the known structures and well-oiled routines that almost all of us comfortably adhere to.
In his novel “Demian”, German author and philosopher, Herman Hesse wrote, “For the first time in my life I was tasting death, and death tastes bitter—for it is birth pangs, fear and dread before some terrible renewal.”
“In the next 100 years, all of us sitting in this room today will be gone, just at different times; some sooner than the others…,” Aisha simply observes in a TED Talk she gave when she wasn’t even seventeen. Aware of her numbered days Aisha chose to live in the moment, a choice of being grateful for what she had instead of pondering on what she lacked.
Most of us live on auto-pilot, going from one moment to the next without even noticing our surroundings. Our lives are significantly easier now, a drastic change from what our ancestors had even a century back—we have everything from availing movie tickets, food, transport services, or dating literally at the tip of our fingers—but maybe this very certainty, this habit of being in charge, has atrophied our awareness muscle, of being connected to the present moment.
This very sense of comfort has created a skin-deep culture where humans constantly require stimulation—be it in the form of a hundred likes on a social media post, retail therapy, or sugar rushes. Death becomes a remote possibility in this hyper celebration of life via consumption.
To them life was not pointless because of death, life became precious because of it.
“In this age of instant gratification, we want everything in our lives to come without an expiry date. We want everything to be permanent—relationships, love, beauty, youth, happiness. But the truth is, permanence is an illusion,” writes Shaheen Bhatt in her memoir about surviving depression, “I’ve Never Been (Un)Happier”.
Uncertainty is not something our culture takes into account, nor does it teach us to confront or adapt to it, given our perfect schedules and year planners. Ours is a culture of a meticulous planning ahead. The golden question posed, to gauge ambition, before college candidates to professional aspirants is: ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’
Subsequently, the maths add up when Kessler explains humans are collectively feeling something called, ‘anticipatory grief’, in the face of the pandemic. He elaborates, “Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually, it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. 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. We’re feeling that loss of safety.”
So, what can be the way forward?
More than ever before, mental health experts are asking people—those that are social distancing and also healthcare professionals working round the clock—to try relaxation techniques like mindfulness, breathing or meditation. Remarkably, all of these hacks use the same principle that Aisha speaks of.
“…I feel that happiness can only come from acceptance. I accept who I am, and I accept where I am at and I accept the challenges that I am battling with today…” In more clinical terms, Aisha was talking about radical acceptance.
The idea of radical acceptance comes from the tenet of non-attachment in Buddhism that Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) fine-tuned. An increasing number of people, in mental health circles or movements like body positivity, are waking up to its wisdom.
A website offering counselling services explains the concept lucidly. “Accept yourself and your life for what they are—not for what you want them to be. Realize and acknowledge what you can and cannot control. Survey yourself and your life without judgment or condemnation.” This has proven to be a very universal approach while grappling with insecurity about one’s current circumstances.
At seventeen, Aisha was already a poet, a painter, a motivational speaker and a thinker in her own right. She turned the fragility of her life into an intense love for the same. Perhaps, the thought of our imminent death can be after all turned into an ally, an excuse to not take our privileges for granted and connect with the deeper meaning of our lives. Maybe with the pandemic taking its own sweet time to abate, a lot of us will be able to tap into a similar connection with our inner selves.
For me that moment of connection came in an odd shape, when on finding a dead little bird in our backyard, I chose to bury it myself—I have never taken up a gardening tool before this, much less dig up soil with my bare hands. Instead of hurrying to erase the experience from my memory, I took my time, said a prayer and even placed a flower on the little tomb. That afternoon, a poem gifted itself to me. Death indeed feels like birth pangs at times.
Cover Image from iStock by Getty Images.
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Usri wants to be many things. A cat whisperer, a space traveller, a stand up comic, a serious poet, an award winning filmmaker, a professional thinker. As of now, writing is the only thing she can do tolerably well. She has previously worked as a culture writer at Tehelka magazine.