We are living in an era of great loss. Let us not pretend, behind our Insta feeds of freshly baked bread, that the stones of wheat that failed to rise are not sitting in our rubbish bins.
For with every life that has gone too soon, we are bereaved. Be he actor Irrfan Khan, Rishi Kapoor, or 13-year-old Ismail Abdulwahab who died alone in an isolation ward in the UK, or chef Floyd Cardoz, or Suzanne Hoylaerts in Belgium, who asked doctors to keep the ventilator for the younger ones, telling them she’d had a good life, or the delivery boy Ranveer Singh who died walking home to Agra from New Delhi. With each one, we ask ourselves how we would go when our time comes. Will we be as dignified and at peace, with our loved ones, or all alone? And while we have an idea, we cannot be certain that we will go without regret and pain.
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Psychologically, we experience two kinds of grief: anticipatory and traumatic, when we are prepared, and when we are not. Currently, we are experiencing both together. We are living through the unexpected and bracing for it at once. We can neither fight this unknown enemy nor flee it, so we are geared up with our emotional resilience, and we are hiding from it all at once. We can neither perform the mourning rituals for those we do not know yet, if we are lucky, nor can we just change the channel and pretend it’s not our loss. It seems foolish now to plan, and yet, if we do not pin hope to a future – a course of study, a relocation, a romance going to the next level, a trip, a meetup, a hangout, a meal, a movie, a job – we cannot peel our voyeuristic eyes from the unfolding disaster of the present and move towards the light.
Psychologically, we experience two kinds of grief: anticipatory and traumatic, when we are prepared, and when we are not. Currently, we are experiencing both together.
We are attempting to stand firm on the deck of a vaulting ship. This is the anxiety-inducing balance we are trying to achieve. You can let go, and be swept overboard, or hunker down and go under, in preservation mode, until it passes. It is futile to shake a fist at the storm.
There are no mentors, personal or professional, to guide us through this. Governments are fumbling, scientists are groping in the dark, our elders are vulnerable, our children oblivious, our networks self-absorbed, our connections inadequate, our past surreal, our future just daring us to look it in the eye and call it by its name.
This loss of a way of life, of certainty, stability, familiar figures that have formed fixed points of our comfort and society, assured social, political and economic systems that work in predictable patterns, is a macro loss no less than that of the plodding dependable support upon the death of a parent. Systems are patriarchal in many ways, yet religion serves as a guide in personal loss. Our loss is magnified by not having the rituals of mourning, nostalgia, closure, debate, at the death of public personas or institutions which perform important functions for us.
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In the traditions of most religions, it is so morbid to contemplate this kind of death that we contemplate the afterlife instead. Resurrection is a solace proportional to the grief that crucifixion raises. The t’chiyat hameitim or the Jewish theology of the resurrection of the dead is a core tenet. Buddhist texts like the Bardo Thodol encourage us to dwell on its possibilities fixed in the knowledge that everything around us is transient. In Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri, the Yaksha Prashna in the Aranya Parva of the Mahabharata and in the III chapter dialogue between Yajnyavalka and Maitreyi in the Brihadaranyaka upanishad, the Hindu argues death to its door. In Islam, physical death is a phase, spiritual death a reckoning.
There is no spiritual mentor through this macro bereavement. We are caught short without a notion of the afterlife.
Why is this vital? The anxiety surrounding death, the sublimation through religion, the belligerence, the unwillingness to go quietly, the need to comprehend it, is itself our proof of life. Psychologically, we confront death because Eros, the life instinct in us, is stronger than Thanatos, the death instinct. Currently, we grapple with both, risky behaviour (what do we have to lose, the rise in aggression, domestic violence, reliving past trauma), as well as engage the preservation instinct (eating, sleeping in unusual patterns, withdrawal).
There is no scenario in which the boy remains on the deck and makes it. We have to choose a response now. Will it be Thanatos, or Eros? Those pummeling their partners are choosing Thanatos. They are giving up on hope, life, putting their futures on the line, regurgitating past woundedness. They are shaking their fists at the storm.
How do we choose Eros?
1. First, by accepting what is. You can’t ride out a storm by standing on the deck and searching for the lighthouse. You have to first accept its enormity, the damage it is capable of inflicting, gauge your inability to control it. Too often, we minimise this to ourselves and others because we equate acceptance with defeat. When it is in fact the most pragmatic of actions – you cannot replenish resources if you refuse to do inventory. To accept is also to allow yourself to grieve, to actually see the loss, the instability, the uncertainty and dwell on it, without rushing past it to an afterlife, or debating with why it is there. It is simply accepting, the way you would a broken heart long after you have ceased questioning why it got broken in the first place.
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2. Second, by checking your resources. Whether it is food, water, money, accommodation, or those within the ambit of your nurturing from family to pets – what connections sustain you and how long can you sustain them? This may mean extravagance on one end, in order to sustain at the other. With children, you may want to maintain a flow of treats to give them a sense of normalcy and maybe stretching your resources and energy. Sometimes vital preservation is counted in resources of morale, not material alone. That is the substance of survival too.
3. Third, by tightening your locus of control. If you cannot quell the storm – and you cannot quell all of it even if you are a frontline health worker, a scientist searching for a cure, or Bill Gates with millions to fund research – what falls within the ambit of what you can realistically do? You can sustain. You can keep your family and immediate circle for which you have resources available (point 2), out of want. You can reach out with services, or goods. You can extend kindness and compassion. You can consider the wellbeing of the collective and follow rules. What can you do that does not deplete you?
4. Fourth, empower your now. To focus on the now does not mean you consume every resource you have in the moment or fail to consider the future. You don’t make a cake with all the butter in the pantry. Simply that you will not be consumed by the imagined collapse of a future you cannot know or control. It means that you will take what is within your ambit (point 3) that will not deplete you (point 2), and accepting what is (point 1), see what can be stored, put away, stockpiled. It is using your now by seeing it is a potent force. Any future you may have is being built on your now. Any past has come to reckoning in your now. Your now is with you, what power can you instil in it? It can be money, it can be remote networking, it can be silence and withdrawal to conserve energy, or it can be learning a new skill. It can be confidence, positive self talk, empathy, self-assurance, the satisfaction of learning a new skill, nurturing others, or whittling down your network enough to sustain self-love. Everything you will be in the future comes from your now.
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On a work trip to Varanasi, I met a storekeeper on the banks of the Ganga who asked me if I knew why it is said the river flows backwards here. I replied that I didn’t. “Because most people only come to Kashi upon their deaths. Those who are fortunate enough to come here before have confronted their deaths, and now must live backwards, from death to birth, instead of from birth to death”. When we choose Eros, we confront our mortality to live better lives.
Gayatri is the author of the forthcoming Diary of a Vipassana Novice, of Who Me, Poor? She is the founder of Shamah | शम: an integrative mind+body+spirit counselling practice. The views expressed are the author’s own.