“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.
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.
“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.