How covid-19 changed our farewells


I lost my father to covid-19 as the pandemic ravaged homes across the country in 2021. I stood awkwardly in a PPE suit, in a small crematorium in Haryana. We jostled each other through a wave of people who were all fighting to have their loved ones cremated. I remembered a funeral where loved ones held and comforted a grieving daughter or a grieving son. The Covid-19 had changed all the protocols.

I waited almost four hours in the cremation grounds for our turn as arguments erupted over who owned the next round. My father was lying in a corner, wrapped in a body bag, having spent the last few days alone in an intensive care unit. My father was a ritual unbeliever, yet he never failed to attend a funeral, even though the person was a distant friend. He would always show up. And now that it was his turn, there was no one left.

As we wind down 2021 and look forward to holding our loved ones close to us in the New Year, I have reflected on mourning, the importance of rituals, and the physical acts of saying goodbye to a person. .

Throughout history, different civilizations have developed their own ways of ‘saying goodbye’ and coming together to say goodbye to those they loved. In Mexico, families celebrate “Day of the Dead” by offering marigold flowers and honoring the deceased by preparing their favorite foods. In New Orleans, USA, a jazz funeral is followed by a cathartic dance. For some indigenous communities in Indonesia, funerals are a tumultuous affair, lasting for weeks. Whatever the culture, what these rites and rituals give us is a sense of shared loss, a collective mourning to perhaps help in the grieving process.

The pandemic has ushered in its own funeral culture. Event management companies are now organizing “Zoom funerals”, a social media page is set up for everyone to leave their messages of condolence. In the United States, “car funerals” have become common.

The act of holding back, crying, crying, celebrating the life of the one who left us is now online, with a click or swipe, just like you can order your weekly groceries or show off your latest vacation photos.

The act of holding back, crying, crying, celebrating the life of the one who left us is now online, with a click or swipe, just like you can order your weekly groceries or show off your latest vacation photos.

We had a Zoom funeral for my dad. His friends connected from different parts of the world. Elderly aunts and uncles stared at the screen, trying their best to understand what was being said. We cried Speedy because my dad was affectionately called out by his friends, but we couldn’t hold hands on the internet.

Struggling to accept that he was really gone, I developed my own personal rituals. I gathered his photos, parts of the Meccano trains he would build throughout the day as he pursued a childhood hobby in his old age, and rummaged through his things. I kept his watch, archived every message from him on my phone, and reread them over and over to myself. I wore his watch, kept his muffler close to me, hoping for a few scraps of his life in those dull, lifeless objects he had once used. I was given his hearing aid and glasses from the hospital, in a small bag. His clothes had been sent to an incinerator for fear of infection. The specs still had fingerprints, I wondered if they were from his hand; Had he worn them one last time before they put the oxygen mask on him?

He was building Meccano trains all day long, while he pursued a hobby from childhood to old age.
(Courtesy of Bahar Dutt)

I wanted to call the night nurse who had accompanied him to the hospital and ask him what his last days were like, what was he thinking? I eagerly grabbed all the photographs shared by relatives and friends, looped them over my phone, tuned to her favorite songs. In the absence of a ritual to say goodbye, I looked for mine.

As the second wave subsided, friends and neighbors started showing up to our family home to complain. With each visit, I looked for a connection, a conversation to somehow, in these moments, to keep alive the memory of my father, to hear by chance an anecdote that I had never heard before.

I rocked each story in my head, savoring it like lemon candy until the flavor was long gone. At first, I wanted these interactions. But as their frequency increased, I realized that they had exhausted me. Each time I visited, I had to recount what had happened to her over the past few days, reliving those painful days each time. It was then that I realized the value of collective grief.

I took to Twitter, thinking that sharing my grief, talking to others who had lost loved ones would help. Big mistake. Random trolls laughed at his death; some have accused me of using the tragedy to mock the efforts of the government. I retreated into my shell.

There is no straightforward way to fight grief or speed up the healing process, but following a few basic rules has helped. I looked for a bereavement therapist. I avoided friends who spread toxic positivity or who viewed my pain with contempt. My pain was precious, I made sure not to share it with everyone, only a few who could listen in silence, giving me space to cry.

At first I felt too guilty to share my grief so I suppressed it. I have heard of families torn apart, of young children who have lost both parents, of a woman on a ventilator when her husband has already passed away. And I felt that I had no right to be sad.

I realized I needed a private space to mourn, impossible if you have two young children and a dashing dog. I found a space to cry in private. I rolled up my car windows and cried. It helped me.

Over the years, I wonder if I will ever be cured. His friends started to meet at the cafe he visited daily. Someday I’ll have the courage to step in there, to hold their wrinkled hands in mine. I will claim my right to cry in person, an opportunity that the virus has robbed us all of. I will gather the shards of pain in my heart and collapse and cry with them, but I will also laugh when I remember him. And after this moment of collective mourning, I will go out into the sun to celebrate all the hearts that beat around me.

Bahar Dutt is an environmental journalist and author who lost her father in the second wave of covid-19 in April 2021.


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