(Published previously in 2020 with some minor edits as we launch into another lockdown)
IT’S the most common and most instinctive thing to ask when you hear of someone dying unexpectedly. Even if the unexpected actually happens more and more often with every incarnation of quarantine and every surge not just in infections but also in deaths due to COVID.
Our social media feeds and messaging groups bring in the news everyday. No longer just someone’s father or mother, but now it’s someone we used to go to school with, a neighbor, a nephew or a niece, and even our own family members. COVID and this hydra is everywhere and rearing an even uglier head with the Delta variant – and it’s taking more and more lives. Our Facebook news feeds are like the obituaries and instead of old people who have lived full lives, it’s been taking those in the prime of their lives.
When I posted about this on my Facebook wall the other day, I posted with this bit of advice – In times like these though, resist the urge and just find the words to express solidarity that a friend or family member is lost forever. Asking difficult questions might be serving more your (natural) morbid curiosity and quieting your shock than giving comfort to the bereaved. Having lost a number of loved ones in the past, I remember being annoyed at how often the family would be asked what essentially was “Ha? Anyare?” even by strangers as they came ostensibly to give their condolences. My mom hated it and came close to actually telling off those who dared ask that with a taray “None of your business!” retort. After all, the circumstances of a person’s death are truly intimate and if the family wants to keep those details private, the best we can do to help them in their bereavement is to leave them to grieve in peace.
A friend of mine made a comment on that post though and shared that when his own parents passed not too long ago, he found himself sharing the details of their struggles at the hospital and at home in the last moments of their lives. He told friends, he told complete strangers, he told anyone who asked the dreaded “what happened?” question. And while I cannot imagine my own family reacting in the same way, it made me think of the power of storytelling and how it can help us understand and process events in our lives.
After all, asking why and what happened are, at their core, invitations to tell a story. And stories do have a way of helping understand and heal. How many times have we needed to tell a friend what happened to us after we’ve had a bad day? How many times have we been asked to give advice to a friend and only ended up listening to a long story of heartbreak? Story can be a potent tool to process trauma and complicated emotions. Stories weave events into narratives, and narratives can help us frame our experiences as having meaning and sense in some grand scheme of things.
And speaking of the grand scheme of things, isn’t that essentially what all the great religions of the world seek to define? The whys of our lives and the hows of how – it all fits together. And is it perhaps no coincidence that all the great religions find their roots in books filled with stories asking the same questions of “Why?” and “What happened?”
In the meantime, here we are, in the middle of the darkest days of this pandemic, with infections and deaths in galloping numbers with a bumbling and stumbling national leader with no appetite for leadership. When we look back at this time years from now, I hope we have a more sensible story to tell that helps us make sense of how we ended up this way. And may it be a story of redemption of how we dug ourselves out of the deep hole we dug ourselves in and lived to tell the story.
Stay safe everyone as we hunker down again.
And please get yourself vaccinated.