My first experience with the death of a close relative was the sudden demise of my grandfather a few years ago. As is with all humans, that safe bubble of denial of death, in which I had erstwhile lived, had inevitably burst. What followed was the harrowing aftermath—the dealing with and facing of the last rite of passage. A grief and sadness that I had never known crept upon me, first as a shock and then as a hesitant realization of the departure of someone I loved.
While each individual confronts this inescapable tragedy in their own unique way, the universality of death makes the feelings I have described resonate with most humans. It is, then, curious to note how our ancestors practiced certain rituals that demanded a more inclusive grieving. Most cultures and communities, all over the world, have their own specific ways of grieving for the dead. From cremation in Hindu and Buddhist religions to burial in Muslim and Christian religious practices, a specific mourning protocol has been observed for centuries. While they may differ in their funeral and mourning processes, a common thread runs through all religions: collective mourning.
Be it during the burial and cremation itself or the wake afterwards, for centuries communities have shared the unimaginable grief that death leaves behind. It is essential that the burning on the pyre be observed by friends and family of the deceased or the burial be reverberated by the chanting of prayers by community members. Even the “Ram Naam Satya hai,” a phrase repeated while transporting the body to the cremation ground, is a collective shout by the members of the community who usually accompany the relatives of the deceased.
This shared grief, the burden of death that is distributed, if not evenly then disparately, speaks of the communal companionship our society is founded on. This communal grieving is apparently different in different cultures: from the “death wails” of the ancient Celts from Central Europe who allowed for public mourning to the Oppari singers of Tamil Nadu who are professional funeral mourners. Different they may be, the common thread of communal grieving attest to the importance our ancestors awarded to such group rituals.
With such immersive mourning rituals embedded in the very matrix of our society, Covid-19 seems to have shaken the very fundamentals of grief we operate on. The highly contagious nature of the virus has forced authorities to put a stop on funerals due to the huge groups it gathers. Crematoriums in Kathmandu have reached maximum capacity and people are being forced to cremate out in the open. Moreover, for the ones who have died due to the virus itself, the matter becomes all the more complicated with many not even getting a proper funeral that follows religious decree. While it is grudgingly acknowledged that such measures are important in order to keep the virus from spreading, it is safe to say that the pandemic has caused more damage than is visible.
Covid-19 restrictions have robbed us of an experience of communal grieving that would have otherwise helped cope with the unimaginable distress that death results in. This experience, one that we took for granted, is essential to a “sound” grieving process. Having been robbed of the opportunity to formally say goodbye to a loved one, to carry out proper funerary practices, to gather in a group to lament the departed and to share grief through food and drinks, we seem to have lost an appropriate channel for our grief.
Further, the sheer inability to change the circumstance invokes an emotional hopelessness. We are constantly gagged by grief, with Instagram and Facebook obituaries continuously reminding us of losses incurred, yet it seems impossible to scream out loud. Thus when news of a covid positive family unable to cremate their relative who had been pronounced dead three days prior reaches our ears, we are forced to come face to face with a horror we are unprepared for.
Last month, a New York Times article discussing mental health problems during the pandemic went viral. The principal take away was the word “languishing” which, Adam Grant writes, is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It is the “void between depression and flourishing—the absence of well-being.” The rising number of cases along with an ineffectual vaccine rollout process resulted in another national lockdown.
However, as compared to the last national lockdown, the gravity of the situation in Nepal currently simply cannot be disregarded. The mental toll that the pandemic has taken on our lives needs to be recognized. In these unprecedented times, we are “languishing,” unaware of how to deal with the ever-increasing encounter with deaths of someone or someone’s someone, all of them gradually being reduced to mere statistics. The lack of a proper channel is only adding to our distress and while the bittersweet experience of collective mourning is far from us, alternatives need to be discerned.
Dorothy P. Hollinger, the author of “The Anatomy of Grief,” says that art helps us express our sorrow. She says it is important not only to contextualize our pain but also to honor the victims. It is important, for the sake of our collective catharsis, to not let the victims be reduced to a mere statistical fact.
Normalcy, if such a thing still exists, is still a long way off. It is difficult to try and assuage the grief that we are experiencing when we are so bombarded with news of death. To avoid facing the situation would be a serious mishap. A good first step would be the acknowledgement of the unfavorable turn our lives have taken. While some may prescribe “staying positive”, studies show that toxic positivity or “tragic optimism” only causes more harm.
Still, no measure is failsafe and the mental damage this pandemic has unleashed on us cannot be reversed. We need to urge the government to provide faster vaccinations in order to gain some respite from the fear that has been plaguing us. Perhaps, for now, collectively chanting “No Khop, No Vote” may be useful to channel our grief.
The author, a native of Dharan, is pursuing her Masters in Comparative Literature from SOAS University of London. Her interests lie in a keen observation of culture, politics, art and their shaping of the society