Dealing With Death During a Pandemic

The COVID-19 lockdown means different things to different people. Some see it as an opportunity – to try out all the recipes from a cookbook that was catching dust in one corner of the house. Others weren’t so lucky. Thousands were stranded without food or money and had to walk long distances to reach home.

While I had the privilege of living in a comfortable house with food, electricity and everything one could possibly wish for, the lockdown is one of the hardest things I have had to face.

I live in Bangalore, which is precisely 753 kilometres away from Kasop, Maharashtra. Kasop is where my grandmother and aunt live.

Or rather, used to live.

My aunt had Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s. She was 53. All of us knew that her time was coming to an end, but we somehow assumed that we would be by her side when it did.

It all began on April 24. She had high fever and was not being able to walk much. We didn’t think it was very serious as she had had similar episodes over the last three months. However, this time was different. The doctors suspected she had pneumonia and wanted to run some tests immediately.

Since she had fever, she had to first get a certificate declaring that she did not have COVID-19. My grandmother immediately took my aunt to the only COVID-19 testing centre in Kasop. They tested her, but had to wait for 48 hours for the result.

It was the longest night ever. My aunt was put on ventilator as she struggled to breathe.

Also read: ‘Feeling Suffocated’: Woes of the Elderly During Lockdown

The next morning, at around 10:30 am, she had passed on. My grandmother could see her daughter through a window, but couldn’t hold her for one last time as the COVID-19 test results weren’t out yet.

My aunt was transferred to a morgue and was there for a day. Meanwhile, my parents went around the city to ask for a pass allowing them to go to Kasop.

Contacts were all that mattered, and our family did not have any. However, after a lot of pleading, we got a pass. Time was moving so fast for us.

The hospital supplied the COVID-19 negative certificate. My aunt had to be cremated immediately. Travelling from Bangalore to Kasop was a 14-hour affair on a good day – reaching on time was out of question.

My other relatives live in Mumbai, which was a red zone. They could barely leave their apartment complex, much less the city.

My aunt was my best friend – we used to play games and colour pictures together. She used to repeat herself over and over again; she was just like a child. The shock of her death has been unbearable.

We wanted to attend her funeral and be there for my grandmother, who had just lost her child.

We couldn’t do any of it.

However, villagers in Kasop attended my aunt’s funeral. Even though ableism was prevalent in the village, along with the fear of catching the disease, many of them attended her funeral.

Meanwhile, I didn’t know what to do. Video-calling to see the funeral didn’t feel right. Instead, we found old pictures of my aunt. The pictures date back to the days when she could run around and talk without stammering. My mother told me many stories from her childhood with my aunt, and I felt like I was getting to know her better, even after her death.

It all felt nostalgic, even though I wasn’t alive when my aunt was young and healthy.

My aunt was finally cremated and that was that. We ate her favourite food for lunch – plain dal with potato curry and no spice.

A week before my aunt passed away, she had changed the calendar date to some day in May. When my grandmother asked her why she did that, she said, “May is the month of vacations. That’s when all our relatives can come visit us.”

Now May has passed, and I can finally go to Kasop. But she is not there anymore.

Aditi Subramanian is a first year undergrad student studying psychology, English and journalism.

Featured image credit: James Garcia/Unsplash