Learning to Grieve


For me April began as a traumatic month and May ended in a tragedy. I lost my father-in-law. Doctors couldn’t attribute the death directly to COVID and in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. What is relevant is that he passed away. He was more than a biological father to me.


It was with grave apprehension and fear that I landed in Varanasi. Test results were not encouraging. Every breath was a challenge. Hospitals and staff were conspicuous with their absence. Video calling doctors was becoming more frequent. Medicine changes, symptom changes, sleep pattern changes, meal schedule changes were cumulatively becoming a massive stress.


Then there was a ray of hope when a new hospital opened. Before it could be reviewed, the ailing man was rushed there to save his life. For two weeks, I sat by his bedside in the hospital rarely getting any sleep. He then gave up the fight. Cremation was traumatic cause Varanasi has its own rituals that I have not seen anywhere else.


Post his death there were another two weeks of rituals. His death gave him peace but for me, as I am sure it was other family members, the hell continued. Sleep was difficult to come by. Yoga kept my blood pressure under control. But everyday objects started to become sources of pain. I thought it would get better when I left the city and returned to Delhi. But it didn’t.


I called up a friend of mine who is a leading psychiatrist in the city. She talked to me. She provided perspective to all that was going in my mind. She showed me all the things I missed; the little clues that dad talked about. She helped me heal.


For all those are grieving a loss, I hope my learnings help in some small way. Here they are in no particular order:


Grief is real

It isn’t imagined or only in your head. It is a sensory overload of various types. The problem is that grief doesn’t manifest itself in just one or two ways. There are subtle signs to watch out for to understand how you grieve and how people around you are grieving.


Obvious grieving

The starkest image of grieving is someone with tears in their eyes quietly or loudly sobbing. This image is stereotyping grief, but it still is the dominant manifestation of grief. For some there are tears accompanied with sobs while for others one or the other is missing.


Being silent

This is when there is no reaction, or the reactions have stopped. There is sullen silence that seems to thunder even though not a sound escapes the individual. The eyes are crestfallen and there are no smiles.


Denial

It manifests in ways of believing the departed soul is still around in some form or another. Perhaps the person is at work and may return later. The departed soul is in another body that is in proximity. This is sometimes accompanied by fake optimism that all is well, and the worst is behind us.


Anger

I dread this the most. For the smallest comment or provocation there is a disproportionate display of anger. Sometimes it is directed at an individual, at other times it is put on display by venting on inanimate objects.


Fear

This coupled with anger make a lethal combination. The fear is of many tangible things such as the future without an anchor. But the fear is also of falling asleep, seeing shadows in the darkness, hearing voices of the departed soul, replaying the illness or last rites.


Depression

There is a clinical definition of depression, and I am not qualified to elucidate it here. Perhaps a trained professional could diagnose this condition better. To me it is a combination of many types of grieving that lead to a point where the individual simply loses the feeling of happiness. It is a grave mental condition that needs attention from a trained specialist.


Barring depression, I encountered all these types of grieving over the past months. I was able to continue to work without any serious disruption, but my mental wellbeing was deeply affected. This affected the immediate family, friends and colleagues I worked closely with. Of all the signs that surfaced, anger was the one that troubled me the most. I couldn’t understand why tiny triggers let loose a barrage of emotions. Every small conversation became a battleground I had to conquer.


It took considerable effort to identify what was wrong and then to begin the process of managing grief. The most important step was to bring relief to those around me at work and at home. I had to learn that it was ok to grieve but not ok to project it on others in a manner that affected them negatively.


The process of healing is a conversation for another day.

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