Dealing With Loss During the Pandemic

I cried today. I let the tears flow freely down my cheeks as I was cleaning our barely new microwave with a concoction of vinegar and lemon. The smell of the vinegar took me back, it reminded me of when I used to clean my father’s nebulisation kit with it.

He was sick. That is most of what I remember about him now. I do not know why I cannot remember his smile or his laugh, but I remember that he was sick. For more than two years, twice a day, I’d dismantle the kit and wash it gingerly with vinegar and water.

He died as the pandemic hit India. He died, and I cried – as is the way it should be.

But I did not grieve – more aptly, I did not know how to grieve. Grief is independent from tears.

Grief. There are no words, no right words to describe it. If shedding tears was all that is necessary for grief to alleviate, then have I not done more than my share of it? The tears bring relief temporarily. Thereafter, I am empty. With all the tears shed what is there left to do?

A loved one says that my grief will dissipate the more I talk about him. That he will stay alive in my memories. But moments are muddled and right now, fresh from pain, I do not remember much more than that he was sick. He had heart problems and I sat by his bed and gave him his medicines. He had breathing issues, had been diagnosed with COPD, and we got oxygen cylinders and nebulisation kits ready. He was diagnosed with cancer so I swallowed my tears and told him to fight.

He was weak but strong.

Also read: It’s Complicated – Why Some Grief Takes Much Longer to Heal

I was with him when we had to stay in Guwahati for his treatment. Duties shuffled between his doting children. Since all of us were working, we developed a routine – a week off work to stay with him as he received chemo.

I stayed for two weeks. When I did, we read because that is what we did. We read and we discussed. I was never much of a talker, but secretly I knew he loved that about me. He called me a dreamer, but my dreams were tangible according to him. He was my most honest critic. Most of what I wrote was filtered through him first. It was god’s gift, he would say. No. It was his gift to me. In five weeks time, we were done with chemotherapy.

I was with him when we received the news. “Your father is cancer free,” said the technician. Those words triggered a torrent of tears. I let the tears flow finally from the deepest recesses of my heart. The tears I had held back since we first found out about his weak heart.

He cried with me. His hand holding mine.

I was with him when the ambulance took him from our home in Umpling to the emergency room of the hospital where he lay dying. The doctor shuffled me to a separate room, “We have to intubate him,” they said, holding out papers for me to sign. My hands moved on auto-pilot. I signed the papers and he was taken away.

“He’s not responding to treatment,” the doctors said, taking out every report and explaining things to me I already knew. Is it horrible to say I knew when he would breathe his last? I have studied and worked in this field for far too long. I wouldn’t lie to my patients so I couldn’t lie to myself.

Still. I wish I did.

I was with him when we brought him back from the hospital in the backseat of the mortuary van. His body was delicately wrapped in a sheet. Was this my father? Just this morning, I had prepared his nebulisation kit for him. I cried but the tears did not feel enough. Grief had got a hold on my soul and till date, it has not loosened its grip.

I do not believe in god or the devil, so who do I bargain with to release the clutch of melancholy on my heart?

Also read: A Future Without Goodbyes? Hanging Out with the Virtual Dead

He died as India went into lockdown. After his funeral, I went into survival mode. I went about each day taking care of my family. I went to work immediately because I work in a hospital. I shut my feelings off. Death is inevitable, I had lost someone close to me but I already knew it for what it was. I had done my duties as a loving daughter, so the healing should begin now.

It didn’t. Each day I pushed away what I thought was unacceptable inside. I woke up and did what I needed to do. During this pandemic, I would be more useful to my family if I wasn’t breaking down. I would sort through my feelings when it ended.

Months passed and the pandemic still holds its grip tight on the people. I was distracted enough to not hear my pain, to not feel it but it grew. The nights got darker and sleep eluded me. I dreamt about him many times. I did not want to sleep.I did not want to dream. Sleep arrived only when exhaustion took over.

Outwardly, all seems the same. It is not. Grief has a way of hiding in the crevices of your heart, biding its time only revealing itself at the most inopportune moments. Like how it did today. The fumes from the vinegar took me back. To the care and love which went into cleaning his kit. Something I will never get to do again.

It will be six months soon and I am no closer to understanding my grief as I was six months ago. Maybe grief is not to be understood, it is only to be felt. Though if tears are not the outlet, then my grief can never be felt the way it is supposed to be. Now I cry to relieve the burden on my heart. It swells again soon after. With each cry, I learn how to last longer, until maybe one day I forget to cry altogether.

Cheryl Rynjah is a pharmacist currently living in Shillong, Meghalaya.

Featured image credit: Samartha J V/Unsplash