Why Are We Still Not Talking About Grief?
India is a spiritual retreat for people from all over the world trying to come to terms with their loss, pain, and suffering. But Indians are strangely uncomfortable with the idea of grief. Trigger Warning: This essay contains instances of suicide, depression, and alcohol abuse.
“Give me three months and I will fix you,” were the first words of a top psychiatrist on our first meeting. The next 40 minutes were a one-way sermon on how to stop wallowing and get going.
Neither of us uttered the word grief during these sessions — despite the fact that the session was, almost in its entirety, riddled with my angst over the sudden death of two parent-figures. I don’t think I spoke about anything else.
It was around this time that I came across a male friend, who was finding it difficult to cope after losing his parents in quick succession. Outwardly, he coped as our society expected him to. Yes, it is sad, but what can be done? Move on. There’s nothing else you can do. After having that platitude repeated to him over and over again, and perhaps repeating it to himself over and over again, he did the best he could do.
After a few months of excessive drinking and uncharacteristic aggression (he is the gentlest person I know), he decided to jump from his balcony one day. He was saved — or maybe he saved himself, I can’t say for sure. After a dark night of aggression and self-harm, one of his aunts suggested he go for grief counselling. Grief counselling? The concept is non-existent in India, which is not surprising since mental health has continued to be a taboo in the country.
There are only around 9,000 psychiatrists in India. Some 700 psychiatrists graduate every year and among them, very few take up grief as their speciality. Simply, put India has 0.75 psychiatrists for every 100,000 people.
The first time I came across the concept of grief counselling was when I was working for TIME Magazine. One of my colleagues, in his early fifties, had suddenly passed away. He was strong and healthy one day — we were sitting in my office, going over documents for me to read and sign and having a conversation about how he regularly attends a community yoga program to stay healthy and keep his diabetes in check. The next week, he was gone.
In the aftermath of his sudden death, as I was busy trying to get all the formalities out of the way, I received an email from our HR asking if any of his family would require grief counselling, with the names of a few counsellors who provided the service over the phone. I passed them on to his family but I don’t think they took the company up on the offer. They would have done what any Indian family would do when assailed with grief — move on with stoicism.
It has been a few years since the death of my colleague, but things have remained the same. Last year, a friend suddenly lost her husband to a heart attack. He was only in his mid-forties. On her Facebook post, there were innumerable comments asking her to be strong, to move on. It’s almost like her friends wanted her to move on because they didn’t have the time to wait around for her to heal.
I messaged her privately, telling her that she must wallow in her grief — being strong was overrated. I was not sure what her response would be.
“I haven’t been able to break down as yet. The pressure to be strong at all times is stifling. Wallowing in my grief is a luxury,” she wrote back.
Most people in this country try to cope with grief and loss by building walls and not facing their demons, by being strong and moving on. But grief is not always as easy as it sounds, it doesn’t always heal with time. Grief is not a sadness that eventually passes; especially not in people with a known history of depression or other mental illnesses. Especially not if it lingers on beyond the normal healing time.
I am not a psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst, but my lived experience tells me that grief can become a disease, and if it is not identified and treated, it can be a destroyer, a killer. In troubled minds especially, it assumes unexpected forms. You are still wallowing but you are wallowing in secret and that’s a huge cross to carry.
I did too. I put a happy and rather phlegmatic face onto it all — while washing down antidepressants for months, until two suicides totally derailed me.
The first suicide was that of Sushant Singh Rajput, a popular Bollywood actor. He had millions of followers on social media and a similar number of fans. His films opened to critical acclaim. He had varied interests — from astronomy to Artificial intelligence— and he was happy-go-lucky, according to his friends and acquaintances.
Then there was Manoj, who was 22. He was best friends with a boy I fostered from an orphanage in the suburbs of the Indian capital. Owing to their friendship, Manoj was an indirect part of our lives, and I followed his progress through life - more so when the two of them began sharing a flat when they graduated from school. Manoj did not want to continue with his education and started to work as a shop assistant and then as a call-centre executive. The lockdown had meant that he hadn’t been paid in months. He therefore couldn’t pay his rent and shacked up with a friend for a while. The friend found him dead in June. Manoj also died by suicide.
I found it interesting that both these young men had lost their mothers when they were quite young and both of them seemed to have struggled with the grief of their losses.
Manoj grew up in an orphanage, choosing to spend his vacations in the hostel where he lived rather than going back home to his father, who had remarried. He flitted around, trying to find an anchor, watching his friends move on to bigger and better things, all the while struggling with the loss of his mother. Rajput seemed to have struggled with a similar grief, through his short but sparkly career.
His final social media post was dedicated to his mother. On the 3rd of June, 2020, the 34-year-old actor had shared a picture of his mother, alongside his own picture. Below the post he had written — “Blurred past evaporating from teardrops, unending dreams carving an arc of smile and a fleeting life, negotiating between the two.”
Following Rajput’s death, there has been so much noise about his mental health and drug use (amongst other theories), but no one was (or is) talking about his grief that very obviously consumed him. Because we do not talk about grief. We do not wallow and we do not let others wallow. We do not consider grief a disease that can kill and we are inherently suspicious of anyone who wears their grief on their sleeves. Anyone who wants to talk about it. Anyone who wants to cry.
When we talk about grief in India, we always equate it with strength. The point of grief is to overcome it. Is that really so? Shouldn’t the point of grief really be to feel it, face it, and get help when it begins to affect your normal functioning? But how do you get help for grief when it’s not even considered a mental illness in this country?
What is this obsession with standing up straight after every misfortune, picking up the pieces, and moving along? It is almost as if we are afraid of grief — of witnessing it and having to deal with it. As if, just by association, it will weaken us in some way.
After I heard about Rajput’s suicide, I paused myself as a deliberate response to this unfathomable need to be strong at all times.
Currently, all around the world, experts are rethinking grief. In 2018, the World Health Organisation’s 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases or ICD-11, included prolonged grief disorder — a longing or preoccupation with a deceased and notable emotional distress — as a new mental health disorder.
The idea of grief assumes greater importance now more than ever, because we are all grieving at this point. We are grieving the passing of the world as we knew it, unsure of what the new normal is and if the new normal can be our normal, ever.
As the pandemic rages, we are now also collectively grieving the loss of the world as we imagined it would turn out for us, as we grew older and wiser and perhaps even wealthier. How much will we travel? How much will we see? The sheer magnitude of the experiences that lay ahead of us consumed us more than we knew. How would things be on the other side? How will we work? How will we live? How will we love?
In the four walls of our homes, cut off from the distraction of a social life, grief can become a monster that can consume us. It means whatever grief we glossed over and pushed to the corners of our minds, is rising to the surface now. There is a reason we need closures. Moving on without closure is like closing the door to a tsunami — you can’t see it, but it’s still there. It is rising and frothing. It is waiting for the door to open.
Many of us are in the grips of anticipatory grief — stressing over future tragedies.
"There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety...We are grieving on a micro and a macro level,” David Kessler, the world’s foremost expert on grief, told the Harvard Business Review in an interview.
During the months-long lockdown in India, it was an untenable struggle to prove that the show must go on. When I questioned this on my social media, I received several well-meaning lectures. However, I do not want anyone to tell me why the show must go on — I just want to take a minute, a few hours, some days, or maybe even a year to mourn the world falling into pieces around me.
“The show must go on, yeah
Inside my heart is breaking
My makeup may be flaking
But my smile, still, stays on”
This beautiful Queen song doesn’t take into account that many of us are mentally fragile and many have been made fragile in the aftermath of COVID-19. More than 80,000 Indians have lost their lives owing to this pandemic and this need for the show to go on is a pressure that not many can talk about, or handle. Every time I feel like I can’t carry on — and that happens a lot — I feel rushed, I feel judged by these invisible, scrutinising eyes moving me along.
C’mon, jolly along. Get a move on.
“The show must go on!”
It’s like traveling in a crowded train — you have to get on and get off before it leaves the station. But so what if the train leaves the station? You can get off at the next stop or you can get the next train. But in our obsession to make every moment of our lives count, we are forever being rounded up and rushed along. We’re often shamed for not being able to pick up the pieces.
When I learnt about Rajput’s death — the door to my own tsunami opened. I was awash in a grief that was not mine alone anymore, but it was a sum of all the grief I have never allowed myself to feel throughout my life, including the loss of the world as we knew it.
This is one grief I will not be hustled from. I want to stop, wallow, and heal.