“She left me at 6 pm last evening,” the text from a dear friend popped up on one of our phones. The friend was referring to her mother. What struck us was the measured language used, despite the wave of grief. These were sober words, like those of writers and journalists used to reporting the death of others. This language is precise, and no one should have it on the ready. No one should expect unexpected grief. No one should live a life where they already have the language for grief when it arrives.
In April, India was hit by a second wave of COVID-19 so strong that we may need new words to truly express its horror. Tsunami does not cut it for they tend to retreat sooner. What we found shocking was how, amid the sudden death of family and friends, no one seemed to be doing what has always been a demarcating feature of shattering grief—searching for words to express it. So omnipresent was death, and so ubiquitous its communication from all around, that everyone acquired its second-hand language. It’s the marker of this tragedy that each one of us subconsciously picked up the exact language to talk about it.
However, the impact of grief was not dampened by this. Grief was still all-consuming. The friend who lost her mother after a continuous 36-hour decline in her oxygen levels was still as devastated. She still had to walk the rooms of their home, collecting her mother’s items in a bag. The hairbrush she used merely hours ago, strands of hair still coiled around it, the lipstick collection, her sarees in the closet, her smell on the pillowcase, the fold of the sheet and the sagging of the mattress from where she last lay, the leftovers in refrigerator from the last meal she half ate—all of these my dear friend still had to remove. Then once removed, stare at the emptiness left behind. Nothing prepares you for a death, nothing can prepare you for the death of your mother.
We are reminded of another calamity nearly two hundred years ago. Back in the 1840s, the Irish were ravaged by a potato famine. Help was scarce, and nearly a million people died. Across an ocean from them were a different set of people suffering their own tragedy. The Choctaws—an indigenous tribe in the United States—were being forcibly relocated by the government. They were forced into migrating to Oklahoma in a journey so perilous it earned the sobriquet, “the Trail of Tears.” But even during their own tribulations, when the Choctaws heard of the Irish fate, they did something truly unimaginable—they took up a donation drive and sent $170 to help the Irish. More than 170 years later, Irish communities are donating generously to a fund-raiser for indigenous communities in the United States impacted by COVID-19. The drive has raised over $7 million. According to a report in the New York Times, the organisers said that “hundreds of thousands of dollars” came from Irish donors. The donors said that they were simply repaying the debt. They remembered.
History is memory. We remember genocides so that we do not let them happen again. We remember the feeling of burning skin upon touching a hot stove as a child so that we do not do it again. If you forget, you are bound to repeat. We must remember. When you walk through the empty rooms of your home, remember those who used to live there too. When the other side of the bed remains cold and sheets uncrumpled, remember. The faces that will not peek around the door, the voices that will not call out from another room.