As a qualified Medic, I was trained to see the dying and the dead. Death due to COVID-19 is not the same as death due to lack of oxygen or lack of medical care. These deaths are not transitions. They are abrupt, cruel accidents due to the unpreparedness, callousness and complete haughtiness of those in power. These are murders. And now they are happening in rural India with equal viciousness.
I learnt the World Health Organisation (WHO) classification of bereavement – those five stages which the august body thinks are the beginning and end of grief. The pandemic has revealed our folly in believing what we did. It reveals our abject inadequacy of knowledge, both of the virus and of its end result, namely death.
During the first wave, if death was tip-toeing around us, then in the second wave it is making a brazen entry through the front door. Nothing could beat the immorality of death. No classification can reveal the beginning and, most importantly, the end of grief
TRAJECTORY OF GRIEF
Death due to COVID-19 is unique in many ways. It happens in isolation, away in a hostile landscape full of beeping ventilators and all-clad stiff bodies with blurry, stern faces. Holding hands is not allowed. Loved ones trying to get a glimpse of their dying ones from across smoked glass windows of the ward or the ICU is considered a breach of protocol.
The trajectory of grief, which of course isn’t measurable by any classification, has held us by the collar. As the curve of COVID-19 deaths continues to rise at escape velocity, we continue to deep dig deeper into our grief. As we dig deeper, we become numb to the idea of death. We invent our own ways to cope with the irreversibility of it.
One of the greatest science fiction writers, Isaac Asimov, had once written, “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” I am not sure if Asimov would have said something similar had he seen the current crisis in India. Here, transition is not troublesome. Transition is brutal.
HOPE FOR THE BEST
As death and grief continue to rule lives, we need to cling to hope. One of the most prolific proponents of hospice care was the psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Roth. In her most defining work, On Death and Dying, she has written, “The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”
We need to imbibe Dr Roth’s words as the gospel of truth. We need to build ourselves in the debris which surrounds us. We have to mourn in our own ways. We have to mourn each loved one, each friend and each corpse thrown out of the deep blue heart of the holy river. Because mourning is a celebration of our existence in these horrid times.
In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Marquez describes the murder of the Arab man, Santiago Nasr. After being stabbed in the abdomen by the Vicario twins, Nasr’s intestines hung out and he walked for some time. He held his entrails in his hand. He stumbled on the last step and took care to brush off the dirt that was stuck to his guts. India, like Nasr, is walking with its intestines hanging out. Who will even care to brush the dirt from these hanging innards is something which time will tell. And before that happens, we have to keep walking. We need to speak to our wounds. We are still alive, we should keep bleeding and breathing.
Dr Naresh Purohit is advisor to National Universal Immunisation Programme and National Communicable Disease Control Programme. He is also Advisor to six other National Health Programmes. He is visiting Professor in five Medical Universities of Southern India including Thrissur based Kerala University of Health Sciences. (The views and opinion expressed in this article are those of the author)