'I cannot afford to be emotional or fearful right now': people across India share how they're coping with despair and grief

From learning more about the SARS-CoV-2 virus to meditation and walking miles daily, people are trying different ways to quell their fears and navigate their grief.

May 09, 2021 / 09:34 AM IST
(Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui)

(Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui)


The novel coronavirus has unsettled everything. Our lives. Our definitions. Our routines. Grief feels like fear, and our every day existence has turned into a provisional feeling of emptiness. What seemed like a faraway monster yesterday is lurking around the bend, trespassing into our circle of loved ones and snatching them cruelly. The constant murmur of death has turned our hours into an observance, an expectation of pessimism and loss. Grief is a stubborn squatter, it is refusing to vacate our life and world.

The map of sorrow and grief, however, is not the same for everyone. As the cacophony hits a crescendo, people are digging into their personal tips and tricks to walk through life. Some mustering courage that they never knew existed, others crying rivers and invoking the gods. Some switching off the television, others buttressing themselves with compassion. A few finding safety in numbness, others escaping from their known and lived worlds to quieter/sequestered dwellings.

We are all walking the dark corridor as best as we can.

Aruna Pandey seeks solace in knowledge; reading as much as she can about the virus. Her life has never been so scattered. Daughter in Goa, son in Germany, she parked in Gurugram with a relative, and her husband battling Covid complications in Shimla. But Aruna, retired associate professor (University of Rajasthan), is not counting the miles between her loved ones. She is not focusing on emotion, either.

“I cannot afford to be emotional or fearful right now, all my moments are spent knowing more so that I can make informed decision about my husband’s treatment and care,” says Pandey.

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Knowledge is not her only solace, though. She is reconnecting with relatives and friends. “Despair has prompted me to think of the larger collective of humanity and goodness. There’s solace in collective existence,” says Pandey. She adds that if she could, she would have erased miles between her and her immediate family.

While Pandey is staying  busy Web crawling, Prakriti Prasad, author and parenting coach, is harnessing the power of chanting and spirituality. Her day begins with gratitude meditation followed by breath and healing meditation. By evening, her home in Ghaziabad reverberates with "Hare Krishna Mahamantra" that she chants along with her husband and two teenaged children. When her sister-in-law lay gasping for breath in Patna, Prasad tapped into her problem-solving skills to arrange for oxygen and to provide succour to her aged father.

“In difficult situations, I block sentimentality. Shedding tears and lying crumpled in a corner solves nothing. I take charge and stare problem in the eye,” says Prasad who has also avowed not to take the virus’ name. She says she does not utter the words corona or Covid “because the more you talk of it, the more energy you are sending its way”. She has turned the virus nameless; that namelessness is her optimism tool.

“When I'm in turmoil, when I can’t think, when I'm exhausted and afraid, I go for walks. I walk and I walk and sooner or later something comes to me, something to make me feel less like jumping off a building,” says public relations professional Sayantan Sinha. She isn't quite quoting Jim Butcher but that is what he does. He walks and walks. Often 11 kilometres a day. Walking is the despair-antidote for Sinha who recently shifted base from Faridabad to his ancestral home in West Bengal. When news of his nephew’s critical condition and his friend’s Covid struggle inside an ICU reached him, Sinha laced his sneakers and went for a long walk. He repeated the walk-medicine when two panic pangs hit him within a week. And when his time-tested walks are not enough, he chants the beej mantra (seed mantra) of Swami Pranavananda, his guru. He, sometimes, even has monologues with the guru. “In a world where life has become so unpredictable, the walks, the mantra, the monologues are my devices to stay sane,” Sinha said.

Decades of helping special needs children has steeled Ganga Singh. The Jaipur-based philanthropist has seen and dealt with the grief and distress of others. For her, grief does not fall within ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ parentheses. She embraces every grief as her own. Recently, when gloom knocked on her door, she tapped into her inner strengths. As her daughter and five-year old grandson battled Covid-related complications, Singh went on a chanting-meditation-exercise overdrive - spending 3.5 hours every day fortifying her mind and body.

“You need mental as well as physical strength to deal with distress,” says Singh who believes her rigorous Vipassana training holds her in good stead. Even while her own blood lay ill, Singh reached out to people - specially the elderly who live alone - in need and provided food and essentials. “In grief, we should hold hands. That is how we will all survive this raging pandemic,” adds Ganga.

Also read: Mapping loss, nurturing grief

“Forget television. Forget newspaper. Am a radio freak. I keep a radio in every corner of my house. There’s one even in the bathroom. I do not listen to news. I have no specific choice of radio programme. I listen to any music - Hindi, Bengali, English, heavy metal. Anything. The radio is my happiness/sanity companion. I like the sound; it cuts the noise of grim realities and harsh truths of the pandemic,” says Gargi Gupta, a Kolkata-based corporate communications professional.

“I have not shut the outside world. I provide help to anyone who reaches out to me. That empathy and compassion is my to-go elixir,” adds Gupta who has now redefined her life’s priorities. Her sister Uttara Ghosh, ex-banker, finds comfort in the kitchen. Straddling her 31st floor home in Dubai and her ancestral house in Kolkata, Ghosh’s distress-busters are the woks and spices. And the crows that come to her balcony every day for food. “Amidst misery and woe, kitchen and mantras are my only physicians,” say Ghosh who is currently stuck in Kolkata with her son.

While others are seeking solace in spirituality, knowledge and empathy, photographer Himanshu Pandya is stoic. That has always been his mien -  a surrender to the will of God. He serenely accepts the realities, however monstrous. “I might sound politically incorrect but whatever happens, happens for good. I have no tools to handle distress, I have no devices to fathom or disentangle grief. If grief is the current monarch, so be it. I do my bit to help, to care but I do not worry about anything. Not even death,” says Pandya who recently moved to New Jersey. “What do I do about grief that I can do nothing about?” he asks rhetorically.

Whatever their despair antidote, in every heart lives hope. Hope, as Stephen King said, is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.
Preeti Verma Lal is a Goa-based freelance writer/photographer.

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