My paternal grandparents passed away recently. Dadu was the first to go – on Panchami, the day that marks the start of Durga Puja festivities. Thamma (colloquial Bengali for paternal grandmother) joined him the very next day – on Shashthi. They both succumbed to the COVID-19 virus after a prolonged fight.
For a man of 87, Dadu was surprisingly healthy. He had placed himself on a very restricted diet ever since he suffered a massive cardiac arrest some 14 years ago. He banished all fried and spicy foods from his meals, and instead confined himself to wholesome, mildly cooked foods, accompanied by generous portions of fruits and vegetables. The only indulgence he permitted himself was that beloved Bengali sweet, rosogolla. Thamma however, had no such self-control. No number of ulcers, hernias and gall bladder stones could stop her from gorging on her favourite – fish fries. It was only after she was diagnosed with dementia seven years ago, and she gradually began to lose control over her cognitive abilities, that she could be coaxed into eating healthier.
For almost 20 days, Dadu raged against the virus, much to the astonishment of his doctors. The progression of the disease went through its highs, when we would be hopeful of seeing him again, and lows, when we would brace ourselves for the worst. In the end, his body did manage to get rid of the virus. But it had so completely ravaged his lungs that there was little left to save. He suffered a major cardiac arrest from which he could not be revived.
In a shocking turn of events which is the stuff of literary romances, Thamma, who had made a complete recovery and was set to be released from the hospital, suffered a fatal heart attack too. Distant relatives expressed surprise at the bond between them which could not be broken even in death.
I, however, had just lost both my grandparents in one go, and there was little by way of consolation that anyone could offer me that would soften the blow.
It felt like I was experiencing all the stages of grief all together. There was shock, denial, with occasional surges of anger, interspersed with spells of guilt. What remained constant was a deep anguish which worsened every time I looked at their rooms, expecting to see them napping on their bed and then realising with a sharp pang that the room was empty, and would forever remain that way. Every detail of my life with them, which had become so routine, haunted me in their absence – the small, measured steps Dadu would take, slowed down by arthritis, his constant lament at my dislike for fish, his love for which was well-known among our local vendors, the stories he would tell me after lunch before he drifted off for his siesta and our shared love for English poetry.
Well-meaning relatives console you with platitudes along the lines of ‘they are in a better place now’, ‘they are no longer in any pain’, ‘they lived a full life’, and so on. You try to comfort yourself with these thoughts too, and yet they do nothing to dull the pain. Regret rears its head at times, making me recall times when I was too busy to spare some time for them, when I snapped at them about trivial issues, when I chose to hang out with friends instead of spending time with them.
At some point, the tears dry up. I think that makes the pain worse. So long as you were crying, you had a way of venting your grief. But when you can’t cry anymore, all you can do is lug around this heavy emptiness in your heart. This becomes even more unbearable when night falls and you are left alone with these intrusive thoughts weighing you down.
Losing a loved one during the festive season adds to the pain. The atmosphere of cheer with the incantations of puja rituals being broadcast through megaphones and social media flooded with pictures of the celebrations was completely at odds with the profound sorrow you carry around. I found myself almost resentful of the joy of the revellers.
Eventually, Dadu and Thamma’s deaths will become statistics in the mounting death toll exacted by the virus. We will stop wondering if there was anything we could have done differently and perhaps saved them. The world will keep moving on, as it is wont to do. Yet, for me, their passing brought back memories of past bereavements and turned my world upside down. Certainly, as time goes on, the pain will ease and they will become memories we remember with fondness. But the part of me that I lost with them will forever be gone.
Shruti Mitra is a 22-year-old postgraduate student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.