Pandemic Funerals: Lives lost, not forgotten

Health Society

With pyres burning incessantly, bodies flowing like water in crematoriums and people fighting over medical resources, catastrophe knocked India down in the second wave of the pandemic.

Watching the pandemic bulletin on television, Veena Saraswat still hears her late, 63-year-old husband’s voice calling out for help. She rushes to his room only to see an empty bed with him nowhere to be found, she bursts into tears.

“I still see him, hear him as if he is around. I want him to be around just one last time so I could do things the right way”, she said while weeping.

Six months back, India saw exhausted frontline workers cremating multitudes of lifeless bodies irrespective of their identity. People fighting over oxygen cylinders, empty hospital beds, and medicines had become a routine sight. They witnessed their loved ones go to the other side without bidding them goodbye. It was the second wave of pandemic when India wept collectively for its countless dead. There were stories of multiple members dying in families, children being orphaned and pyres burning with unseizable fire.

Anurag Sharma chronicles the last good memory of his brother he lost in the pandemic. “What happens when you experience sleep paralysis? Your mind wakes up and your body is inactive and helpless. I lived that in this living breathing reality in the evening when I got a call from my sister for help. Her husband’s oxygen dipped below 60 and he had to be carried to a hospital immediately. I was lying panting on my bed trying to gather some strength, to get up to only feel weaker and weaker. With a stone-heart, I recall saying no to her. I tried my best to make arrangements from the bed. It was the worst battle I had to fight in my life —the one between love and duty. I was bound by circumstances at that time. The pandemic left me helpless and guilty.”

Not many days had passed when I got the news that my eldest brother passed away. I saw his body burning on the pyre from a distance. I couldn’t say goodbye to him and that’s the only thing that is still there with me. But I know he had to go and he did. I miss him and these memories still come to me but I know this is life.”

The dignity of the dead was nowhere to be found in the pandemic. The crematoriums flooded with lifeless bodies, while makeshift pyres were being made for them. Bodies were covered in plastic bags and covered faces left no chance of a last glance. It left the families with a vacuum in their hearts.

The government’s advisory restricted large gatherings, which deprived many people of attending their relatives’ funerals. Many were not able to perform the last rites and the rituals after the death.

Deepa Patil a psychiatrist said, “ When you lose a loved one you want to see the person one last time, Covid took that away from many. They couldn’t get that closure by bidding them a final goodbye.” Given Covid restrictions, many took to apps like Zoom and Google Meet for gatherings and prayers. 

Arun John, founder of Vandrevala Foundation said, “In Hinduism, people have the tradition of taking the ashes home but pandemic deprived them of doing that as well. People were sceptical whether the ashes they got were of their relatives or not. Some were unsure if the final rites were performed properly or not. I remember someone saying that his relative’s body was dumped in a pit dug by a JCB.”

Veena Saraswat remembers trying to drag down her husband’s body from the bed to wrap it in clean clothes. After multiple failed attempts she sighed and quit trying. “I felt alone and helpless,” she said.

Both her children lived abroad and the couple stayed alone here in India. “I wish I could change his clothes and clean his body, I wish he could be carried by his family members on four shoulders rather than by some strangers in a van. I just wish I could have arranged a hospital bed for him. It feels like I threw him out like garbage. I don’t even know whether they cremated him properly or not. What if the ashes I got are not his? I don’t know the answers but I know that I have to live with what I have been told. This pain and guilt of not being able to perform the rituals properly will last till my last breath,” she added.

A report by the Centre for Study of Traumatic Stress stated that the grief of losing a loved-one manifests in different ways. It comes in different forms and affects our everyday life. Strong feelings of anger, guilt, loneliness, or questioning faith and religion are some ways how grief expresses itself. It also affects physical health by loss of appetite and loss of sleep. Acute grief can be disorganizing but the intensity of the emotion diminishes after a year of losing a loved one. Although the emotion never dies, it gets decentralised over time.

India lost more than five lakh lives in the second wave. Ashes have turned cold but the pain lingers | Courtesy : Shutterstock

Shruti Desai, a grief counsellor at KMH hospital explained, “Grief as an emotion is very strong and if it goes unresolved it gets displaced to other aspects of life. It will make a person anxious, insecure and will hamper their life. When someone loses a loved one the first emotion that comes out is grief. This happens because as humans we have attachments and we are bound by them. Losing someone makes us feel helpless and hollow. Although attachment might be a cause of grief, it is one of the things that can heal it too.”

“Why me?”, “I treated other people but couldn’t do anything for my family”, “I couldn’t cry” were common phrases said on call, Desai remembers.

Swiss psychiatrist Kubler Ross gave us the cycle of grief. The initial stage is denial where a person is shocked and confused about what is happening. Then kicks in the ‘why me?’ stage where a person goes through anger and frustration. Post that comes the bargaining phase where the person starts making negotiations to normalise things. People tend to think they can avoid grief through some type of negotiation. After that, the person gradually comes out of the depressive state and tries to stabilise their emotions. This is the phase where they re-enter reality. 

Covid has deteriorated the mental health of people. Arun John informed that their NGO saw around 18,000 to 20,000 distress messages a month. 

“Hearing sounds of the ambulance, crying in the family, images of crematorium were some common complaints. People had nightmares of getting the ashes of some other person and burning pyres. Some had not eaten in three days while some used to cry through the night. But now people are gradually coming out, so things are improving. The number of calls has reduced.” 

Survivor’s guilt has been seen in many cases post-Covid. A doctor whose wife was a diabetic caught Covid from him and died. “Survivors’ guilt was prominently seen in cases where a person brought Covid and infected his family or someone with co-morbidities”, said John. He further added that counselling is crucial for resolving such emotions.

India has lost more than five lakh lives to the pandemic. However reports suggest that the actual toll was way higher. Covid has changed lives permanently. With the pandemic waning away, life is coming back to normal but the lakhs of lives lost have left a gaping hole —one even time cannot diminish.


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