Once upon a time, before a raging beast like COVID-19 stomped and trampled on our world, and upended our lives, we followed a carefully constructed set of rituals to help people honour their loved ones. Poetic endings—be it reading a favourite poem or playing a favourite song—were not unheard of for that final sendoff journey. There were also those last poignant moments spent with your loved ones that you could hold onto.
Today, death has been shoved aside and the way we bid farewell has been rewritten. The tender rituals have been replaced with silence, loneliness, and a virtual video.
And this has brought us to one more way the pandemic has changed our lives. It has changed the way by which we leave life or mourn. Over the course of this year, the tome of heartbreaking stories surrounding goodbyes and final farewells have only been compounding. I remember reading about the heart-rending story of a 60-year-old man in Greater Noida (India) who died of complications arising out of COVID-19. Even in his dying moments, he wasn’t around his family or friends. The most distressing part was that his wife, a COVID-19 patient, watched her husband’s last rites over a video call from the hospital.
Then there is the story of Bergamo, a town in Italy, where during a week, over 300 people died without a friend or relative to hold their hand or share their fear. The situation had touched such harrowing proportions that often community members learned of losses through obituaries published in local newspapers. At one point, the local newspaper published ten pages of obituaries.
In one sweeping wave, death had become more than just a grim reaper. And it was ironic that during these changing times, I am reminded of French Historian Philippe Aries’ observations in his book ‘The Hour of Our Death.’ In it, he noted how the relationship between the western man and Death had undergone a metamorphosis—in a way, Aries noticed that the Modern Man had suppressed the idea of death, pushing it aside out of fear. He had observed that in our over-achievement focused society, death was an unplanned event that was considered a disruption and at best managed rationally.
I am tempted to think if the pandemic has forced us to rethink our notion of death as a cultural product, and how death is much more visible and keener now to salvage its place in the midst of life that is difficult to ignore. Without the hand holding of ritualistic traditions and social connections, has it further exacerbated the way we perceive death and deal with it?
The answer, if there is any, is hardly simple. We are living in a world where the virus makes all the rules: you die alone, and you are put to rest in most cases without a priest, flowers, or relatives. In this world taken over by the pandemic, there are no provisions for final farewells. Here, the last breath of the dying is recorded by a machine with no one to hold their hands or be by their side.
Where do we go from here? Where do we go from all those cultural customs and rituals that we have known all our lives that cite social connections as one of the most time-tested ways of coping with grief?
How do we cope with our sorrow during these times of social distancing without the physical comfort of friends and family? Does this lack of provision for final farewell put us at risk of having complicated bereavement and higher risks of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)?
Robert Neimeyer, Professor in the Department of Psychology, University of Memphis, and Director of the Portland Institute for Loss & Transition has an explanation regarding the importance of spending the final moments with a loved one. According to him, holding a loved one’s hand, having meaningful conversations, and affirming the bond plays a key role in softening the blow of the loss.
It has also been believed that grieving in isolation and unable to be present with dying relatives to comfort them and say goodbye has led to the rise of the phenomenon of ‘ambiguous loss’ or ‘grief in limbo.’ With this sense of loss, it is very hard to get closure resulting in a lot of frustration and helplessness. As per the psychologist Pauline Boss, ‘ambiguous loss’ is the most stressful kind of grief, which if left untreated, can lead to PTSD.
One wonders if this is the tipping point. Has the time come to not shove all our grief and despair into a corner from being unable to say proper goodbyes to our loved ones? Are we ready to rewrite our customs and rituals to provide our brains with a sense of finality, and the ability to kickstart the grieving process, thereby beginning the crucial part of healing?
We may still be scrambling to find the answers for our current crisis, but one thing is certain: the fact that we are asking these questions indicates that we may have turned a corner. Yet, what we really need at this point is to start recognising that we are all in the middle of this collective grief—where we are all losing something now.
The coronavirus has not only destabilised our social and physiological system, but also, our psychological one. So, maybe it is time that while silently mourning the loss of a loved one, we also mourn the passing of what we perceived to be a normal world order.
Now more than ever, we may never be able to imagine goodbyes as a new beginning. We may never be able to listen or hum to the jaunty tune of ‘So long, Farewell’ from the classic musical, The Sound of Music, without feeling a twinge of despair and helplessness. But there is one thing these silent goodbyes may have just done. It has made us realise what we have had, what we have lost, and what we have taken for granted. Perhaps, now we can be brave enough to find a way to say our goodbyes.
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