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Learning to Sit with Death and Loss
For many, the effects of COVID-19 are proving to be unprecedented—from losing a sense of certainty and security to losing loved ones. Harvard Graduate School of Education student Niharika Sanyal reflects on the uncertainty of death, taking a moment to sit with the loss and grief of this difficult time.
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have never really faced the death of a loved one. I don’t think I know how to. My grandfather recently passed away, but it was his time. He was past 90 and had many physical issues. He had been ready to go for a long time, so when he died, it came with the lightness of breath. And so, when my dear friend messaged me to say that her father had passed away from COVID-19—a father who is close to my own father’s age—it hit home that COVID-19 is hitting close, within just 3 weeks of its arrival in India. 

My sense of the infiniteness of time shattered a little. I started wondering, what are the cultural resources we have available to us to deal with the suddenness of death, which is arriving sooner than expected for many? In my wondering, I signed up for a virtual group meeting facilitated by a therapy institute in Bangalore that was holding “an open dialogue to discuss the ways in which loss and death have become salient in our experience of the global crisis.” 

The first thing we wondered is whether the deaths of today are really all that sudden. We always knew we could die at any time, and that anyone could die at any time. Has that uncertainty really changed?

And yet, there is something about this particularly inevitable form of death arriving at our doorsteps that is different from the death that we have experienced in times before this. Now, when death arrives, we cannot be sure we can be there for one another. Maybe we cannot be at the hospital. In India, we have been in strict lockdown for 5 weeks, which means that if something were to happen to a loved one, we cannot take a train or flight to visit them. All domestic movement has stopped. I cannot be there to hug my friend who lost her father. 

We always knew we could die at any time, and that anyone could die at any time. Has that uncertainty really changed?

We took a moment to sit with the grief of this uncertainty. 

After the pause, one girl shared her delicate experience with death. “When someone dies,” she said, “You want the whole world to change, you want the whole world to stop and respond to what just happened for you.” A few years ago, she was on a train between places, when she got news of someone’s death. She said, “I looked up and somebody was eating, somebody was sleeping, they were all doing their own thing. That normality was shocking to me. I wanted the world to be different because it was suddenly completely different for me.” And this is the kind of death in a vacuum—as if on a moving train with no one around to move the world for us into that space of difference—that many fear will befall them or their loved ones. 

We took another moment to sit with the grief of this uncertainty. 

And then others shared that sometimes all is forgiven in death—after death, and sometimes before death. I remembered that someone I considered a mentor had passed away a few years ago suddenly, at the age of 40 or so. And I never had the chance to have that last call with him. He had called me just a week prior to his death but I hadn’t called him back. He had the odd habit of calling people up randomly and venting about something for an hour. To be perfectly honest, I must have not been in the frame of mind to call him back. But now I wish I had practiced some kindness, that I had made that last call. Maybe our souls needed that. Maybe now, knowing that we live in so much uncertainty, I am just a little kinder today. I am taking out a few blunt thorns from some relationships and reaching out my hand a little more than usual to say, “I am here.”

Maybe now, knowing that we live in so much uncertainty, I am just a little kinder today.

In an article she wrote for Dispatches from the Desert, writer Terry Tempest Williams shares that her brother recently recovered from COVID-19. When she asked him about what, if anything, he had learned through this, he said, “I didn’t want to die.”

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” 
Marcus Aurelius

And then another girl asked, “Why is death the only valid form of loss?” There is much that we are losing and have lost. Sometimes, people think our loss is only big enough if it is in death. But we are all losing something at this time, we have all lost something before. There is a temptation to rush to numb the knowledge of it out, or to rush to the next stage, to try and transform something before it is ready. Maybe sitting with our loss is necessary before we can step over to any place else.

“Sometimes, an efficient inner force wants to step in and make something useful of it all, turn it into ‘fuel for transformation.’ But another, quieter voice urges us to stop. Don’t commodify this loss. Don’t be so hasty to make the events of heartbreak meaningful. Not before the magnitude of what’s been destroyed can [it] be witnessed in its entirety.” 
– Toko-pa Turner, "Rushing the Redemption"

About Niharika Sanyal

Niharika Sanyal enjoys waking up to a dream diary and a cup of hot chai, and most of her day goes in some form of listening, writing or story-sharing. Her work in the world is to empower people to discover their authentic purpose and live that out into the world. Based in India, she is an M.Ed student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a certified Purpose Guide™ and a student of human development and psychology.