“She died in my arms,” says Sunaina Magan, her voice breaking over the phone, as she talks about her mother’s passing in Lady Hardinge Hospital last month. It was the 13th day of Ms. Magan’s brother’s death, and her mother, burdened by grief, the disease, and the trauma of getting medical help, succumbed to COVID-19.
Ms. Magan, 41, whose father is recovering from COVID, bid goodbye to her mother and brother at a zoom prayer meeting on the latter’s therhavi (the 13th day ritual; she explains the Hindu belief of the soul leaving for its final abode). But while she is grappling with the loss, she recalls the horrors leading up to it, including rude, often absent, doctors. “I have held the feet of doctors, begging them to take my mother in,” she says of the third week of April, when hospitals and doctors could not cope with the number of people reaching them for COVID treatment.
She remembers bodies piling up in a co urtyard behind her mother’s bed, people arriving in ambulances, even taxis and autos – brought dead. “ Koi pump kar raha hai [someone is giving CPR], someone is shaking their fathers, someone begging a doctor for help.” Her mind is embedded with the sight of a man in his early 30s. “He’d just finished dinner with his wife, and in a few hours he was gone,” she says, of the shock to the whole ward, who by the n had bonded with each other.
Young doctors newly experiencing death at this scale, some doing 24-hour shifts, took it more stoically, even rationally.
“In the casualty ward, patients increased so rapidly that the doctors – five or six of them – could not cope with the 50 to 60 patients inside and the lines of stretchers outside,” says ShaazArif Beg, 24, who was interning at GTB Hospital in April.
It is the unexpected nature of the blood clot formation in the disease that has left doctors feeling helpless. “There was a young girl, about my age, who was getting better. We had told her family we would be releasing her that day,” he says. At lunch, she threw up, and died. “Explaining the death of a young person to the family is hard, because they want to know why,” he says, adding that doctors may not know the reason immediately, and that is even more difficult to explain.
His experience of telling a spouse of the loss of their loved one was also difficult, though he is not able to say why – his age showing through – at not identifying with the loss of a life partner. His most devastating encounter, which he calls “a nightmare”, was the death of friend and classmate Dr. Anas Mujahid. “Death is just a number on a sheet until it happens with family or close friends,” he says, honestly.
But the cremation is not often a closure. Sandeep Kumar remembers first the difficulty in finding a space, the tug of war with the hospital that refused to keep the body of his uncle, the high cost of the ambulance to drive just a few kilometres, and the kriya-karam (rituals) that barely took place, three pandits among seven bodies, moving quickly from one to another.
“The worst was the fact that the lakkad-walla was just wearing a thin mask and no PPE kit. There were several PPE kits just thrown around right there,” he says, adding that the men at the crematorium were so overworked that they had not a minute to even drink water.
In a sense Mr. Kumar and his family – his aunt has just recovered from COVID; his cousin is still grappling with it – has still not come to terms with the death. “We have not been able to tell our mother, though she cross-questions us like a journalist,” he says. It has been 20 days since the death of his uncle.
Shalini Masih, a Delhi-based psychotherapist, says there’s both a collective and individual response to death. While the individual response is based on several factors, some that may go back to childhood, the collective response has been one of “shared humanity”. “It’s good to remember that I am moved because I have the capacity to empathise, even with people we never had a chance to know.”
She quotes a client, a fan of Harry Potter, who spoke of the end of the series, when the snitch (a golden ball with silver wings) opens. It had the message, “I open at the close,” with the Resurrection Stone at its heart that united Harry with all his loved ones who had died.