Celebrating Diwali while being mindful of COVID-induced grief around us

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For a large part of our country and the Indian diaspora, this is the time to rejoice. The festival season is here and the sharp decline in COVID-19 cases has only added to the cheer that the festivities bring with it. While we all continue to struggle with the fatigue of wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and staying indoors, this time of the year brings with it an invigorating nip in the air, a sense of much-anticipated joy and memories associated with the festivities. As the declining COVID cases indicate a possible victory for us and as the festive celebrations ensue, it will only be fair for us to keep in our mind and prayers those who have gone through tremendous grief and still continue to live with it.

Several months have passed since the first and second waves, but for those grieving, no amount of time qualifies as “enough”. At least, that’s not a decision for others to make for them. May be they’re not grieving all the time anymore, may be they’ve gone back to work. But that doesn't mean their grief has passed.

Nothing can be farther from the truth. Grief is not linear, it does not follow a timeline. It waxes and wanes. It’s confusing, maddening even. Yet, when time has passed, people try to hide their grief because they wonder how much sadness can they share or how long they can continue to talk about it. But grief does not pass with certainty and it seeks to be shared. It even changes in its expression. Sometimes, it might take the shape of cynicism, anger or dark humor. It can also create a sense of disconnect, making to believe that a certain person was not quite there with us in that conversation, that there was a distance between “us” and “them”.

As psychologists, we run a support group to tackle grief. We have been conducting sessions for those who have lost their near and dear ones to the pandemic, particularly in the second wave. Through these sessions, we learnt that while a large number of people were apparently ready to move on, many families were stuck in time. Their lives changed when they lost their parents or siblings or children. For them, the pandemic is not statistics. It is not something that happened to the country or to the world. This unimaginable event happened to them, in their homes, and it took away someone they loved.

They cannot understand how the country is celebrating a billion vaccines, how people are lighting a million diyas and distributing sweets. Not that they want others to stop celebrating or have pity on them, but they wonder how everyone else has forgotten the pain, that fear and panic, so quickly. After a loss so collective, how can others go on to do these “normal” things? Why are the markets lit so brightly? How is it that these people have something to celebrate?

This year, many of us will not be able to celebrate in the same way or find the energy to wish someone a “Happy” Diwali. The lead singer of our cacophonic bhajans or the person who made the yummiest food or wore the prettiest saree may have gone. The very moments that symbolised Diwali, have been altered by this pitiless virus.

When someone we love passes away, the very experience of time changes. Our internal world splits into before and after. Life is reimagined in two parts — the time when we could see and feel our loved ones, and the time when that person is no longer alive. We have to learn to talk about that person in the past tense.

When we are alive, time expands and contracts differently. For instance, when at work, time might pass in the same way for all. But when we come home or when we are alone, we are overwhelmed by the enormity of this change and the irreversible nature of the loss. When we open our eyes in the morning, the thought about those we have lost brings back the pain, knocking the wind out of us. The routine moments of the day – of having tea, getting dressed, or returning home from work — become laden with remembrances of the past. It feels impossible to live in the same house or sit in the same room that was once inhabited by those we loved. We seek them in small little things. We ache for their physical presence.

These memories remind us of love, but bring with them indescribable pain. Each moment is a decision to either remember them and get hurt, or forget them and deny ourselves the love that they showered us with.

Feeling helpless in the face of someone else’s pain is understandable, and is reflected in the rush to give advice or the push to find a silver lining or to encourage some sort of “moving on”. Sometimes, in an attempt to offer comfort, people share stories of others who had it worse. Fundamentally, all that is required is to sit in solidarity with the grieving person, and listen patiently. Don't be afraid to stumble in the dark with them. Offer your kind, compassionate presence — there is nothing else anyone can do; grief cannot be solved.

Nivida Chandra (PhD, IIT Delhi) is the founder-director of KindSpace.in and Ann Philipose is a psychologist and couples family therapist.

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Celebrating Diwali while being mindful of COVID-induced grief around us
Celebrating Diwali while being mindful of COVID-induced grief around us
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