Solitary Funerals: We Might Never Be Able to Grieve Death the Way We Used To

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Solitary Funerals: We Might Never Be Able to Grieve Death the Way We Used To

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Reams of tributes poured in for the always-smiling Irrfan Khan on Wednesday, the day that 2020 decided to remind us that it wasn’t done giving out bad news just yet.

Hidden between these tributes, however, were hundreds of posts, written by the actor’s closest friends and family, who couldn’t be by his side moments before his death. Fellow actor Sanjay Mishra, who fondly remembered a drive he went for in Khan’s first Maruti 800, was among those who was unable to travel to pay tribute to his friend. Mishra tweeted that he could see the windows of the hospital where Khan was being treated – and wondered which windows he’d departed from.

Covid-19 has now taken over a thousand lives in India, and over 2 lakh across the world. But, indirectly, as the events over the last two days have shown, it has taken much more than that statistic.

With social distancing now the norm, the lockdown is turning the mourning periods of thousands — including the friends and family of two of the most beloved actors of our times — into mostly solitary affairs.

Three days before he was admitted to hospital for the colon infection that took his life, Khan wasn’t able to be by his mother’s side, who passed away in Jaipur.

The pandemic is transforming where and how the living grieve, altering the ways we process loss.}

A day after Khan’s death, actor Rishi Kapoor passed away after a long battle with cancer. His daughter Riddhima Kapoor, too, was put in the unfortunate position of not being able to see her father again. She later received permission from the Delhi police to travel to Mumbai, but has to traverse 1,800 km across central India to get there by car. She’s also just one of thousands who was able to get permission to grieve her loss in person.

With the coronavirus restricting all gatherings to “close family only”, the dreaded lockdown, it seems, has claimed another casualty — the funeral. Not just in India, but across the world…

As an article in National Geographic puts it: “Social distancing is upending memorials and sacred rituals around death and dying. It’s transforming where and how the living grieve, altering the ways we process loss.”

Back home, we’ve seen signs of this all through the last month of lockdown: Stories of last rites held on video-calling apps, articles about senior citizens passing away alone in their homes, their closest relatives sometimes a thousand kilometres away. First-person accounts of those who’ve lost loved ones to the dreaded disease in quarantine centres, and can’t hold funerals. Accounts of those who are too scared to hold funerals at all.

Everyone has their own way of processing grief. But for the first time, it seems, everyone in the world is dealing with this grief by themselves. Or, according to a reverend quoted in the National Geographic article, is experiencing what he calls, “delayed grief”.

The uncertainty surrounding when it’s time to “get back together” makes the process much harder.

Close friends and family are left in a “suspended place”, he says, where you clearly can’t go back but can’t go forward either.

“They (the ones who lost their lives) had the rug pulled from under them with no warning… You have to grieve the loss of what you had planned, and then wrap your head around what this will look like when we get back together.”

A psychiatrist quoted in the Washington Post, Kathy Shear, agrees that the uncertainty surrounding when it’s time to “get back together” makes the process much harder, and is one of the reasons we have rituals like funerals in the first place. “When you’re in the middle of emotional turmoil and it seems like your whole life has just been turned upside down, it’s reassuring to know what you’re supposed to do. That’s where rituals come in.”

Losing family is always tough, mostly always sad, and at times devastating. But the thought of not being allowed to be present at the funeral of a loved one is always going to be gut-wrenching. Even for those not directly dealing with loss.

Social media, as we’ve known for a while, is another popular outlet for collective grief.

What could help, according to the psychiatrist, is “operating within the bounds of reality.” “It’s not helpful to focus on what we can’t do, and if you can accept the reality [of the current restrictions] and be open to your own heart, that can facilitate creativity and innovation. And from that place, you can often see opportunities.”

That also explains why we’re seeing so many people embrace live chats, and other alternate means to get together with their families. Social media, as we’ve known for a while, is another popular outlet for collective grief.

For now, the two shocking celebrity deaths, along with a pandemic toll that’s showing no signs of slowing down, is another reminder that the lockdown is more than just boredom, one-off baking classes, and Four More Shots Please! memes — it’s also about large-scale suffering. The world is going through a collective tragedy. And for the first time in recent history, we can’t all mourn it together.

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