The terrible second wave of COVID-19 pandemic devastated many a life and livelihood; we all have had anxious moments, hearing screeching ambulance sirens wondering who was going to count his last breath. Our heart got burdened. There was hardly an individual who did not lose a relative, friend, colleague, neighbour or acquaintance to the virus.
One of my dear friends lost her husband, just after two years of their marriage, to the virus. Her grief was overwhelming and I could feel her undergoing all the five stages of grief that was put forth by Elisabeth Kubler Ross in 1969—denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and acceptance.
Initially she was in the denial phase. She could not believe that it could happen to her. Then she went into the anger stage, she felt so angry at the situation, and especially God who did not heal her husband. Soon she was trying to adjust as her parents and relatives arrived; and after all the relatives left, she was in severe depression, unable to bear his loss. And now, after months, she is slowly trying to move forward with her memories and the additional burden to find a job for herself.
While some, like my dear friend, experience grief due to the loss of loved ones, many are experiencing anticipatory grief—where they are aware that death is on the horizon, a near possibility. They are often in a state of hyper-alertness—panicking whenever the phone rings or when they hear an ambulance; when they read the newspaper or see the TV news. This is mentally and physically exhausting and it disrupts the daily routine of life. Pain is real. It is not an illusion. It comes with the loss of what we considered significant or important and feel that we cannot live without it. The pain of losing something precious, fatal illnesses, personal betrayals, financial downfalls, the emptiness of the present, the shock of great change, some of these will eventually come upon everyone during their lifespan. No one is immune. Human life is fragile and subject to forces beyond our power to manage. Even close friends cannot share our pain. The things, the dreams we lost; the expectations gone are ours and ours alone. Pain cannot be erased, or pain cannot be ignored.
When the Tsunami hit Nagapatnam in December of 2004, and killed 250,000 people, a man was standing holding his little son near the sea when the water was coming; his son shouted don’t leave me daddy. But as the waves rose the father could no longer hold him and had to let him go. The child shouted, ‘Daddy, you left me’. The words ‘daddy you left me’ created an excruciating pain in the father’s mind. Grief makes those experiencing it to feel isolated, alone, terrified, damaged and scared of absolutely everything. How long do people grieve depends on their personality, coping styles, life experiences, their faith, and nature of the loss.
At such a time the heart questions, and two questions stand prominent:
(1) How to deal with this unfair world? What are the coping strategies?
(2) Why this undeserved tragedy? Why is life unfair? What approach should we take towards life? How to make sense of all these senseless deaths?
Should we think that all tragedies are due to the will of God, or do we believe that suffering is due to our karma; or is due to our suffering as Gautama Buddha taught? But can we stop loving our loved ones or stop mourning for the death of our loved ones? Or should we adopt the fatalistic approach taken by Bertrand Russel. Russel wrote in his essay, A Free Man’s Worship, that the life of a man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain. As per him everything is just a blind process with pitiless indifference, blind to good and evil. Let us explore these two questions!
To cope up with undeserved tragedy, some of the methods used by people are denial, delay, or passive acceptance. Denial separates the mind from the agony in the heart. Since the pain is too much to endure, it is better to deny the past and ignore the memories. Such soul-numbing turns a person into complacent spiritualised automaton. The ambivalence leads to depression, helplessness, a feeling of abandonment, as all the energy goes into silencing the memory recall. The outwardly pleasant layer functions to hide the inner chambers of the wounded heart, robbing the joy of loving and being loved by others. Some delay facing the pain thinking that time will heal. Time does not heal but only blunts and numbs the memory. Wounds that stay unresolved and unprocessed remain deep in the spirit, leading to despair, and abandonment of hope. With no ultimate reality and absolute systems to turn to, there arises a suspicion and a despondent view of the world. The fatalistic view of life propagated by Russel makes one to accept pain passively or to live in fear of the future doom.
The best strategy is to acknowledge the grief and face your feelings of grief and actively deal with it. Also, it is good to connect with others (family and friends) who can relate and understand; and never with those who are judgmental. It is better to talk to a therapist and plan for grief triggers. Since we are created to be alive, passionate and loving and not dead, it is better to take the risk of bringing the wounded, bloodied and stained heart to God, despite the rage and emptiness. Many saints who have passed through this terrain have also wrestled with God over the deepest questions of life. The journey through the valley of the shadow of death helps in transitioning from the abstract knowledge of God to a personal encounter with Him. This becomes possible when we walk through this terrain with the slowly solidifying knowledge that God is loving and trustworthy and that He can be trusted, without our self-effort or denial of the past. In the surrendering of our will and life entirely to Him, we discover the infinite nature of His love, unsearchable depths of His wisdom and incomparable mercy and grace of Our God. Our well-being depends on trusting that God has the power to redeem and use all things for His purposes, even suffering and pain. Many times, God leads His children to abundance via the paths of brokenness and pain. Jesus was God Himself in human flesh—fully God, but fully man. Most people have heard that He taught, performed miracles; healed the sick. Most people have heard that He was executed on a cross and rose again. In Jesus, God suffered, and He knows our pain and so we can trust Him.
Two decades back I was struggling terribly in life. I was undergoing ongoing undeserved pain for 20 long years; I was bitter and angry with God. I felt that my life was a failure and even tried to take my own life. But while I was dying of pneumonia and was kept on a ventilator on March 2004, I heard a voice, “I am giving you a new life” three times. I saw the Cross and the Holy blood flowing in torrents, and I could see every wrong thing I had ever done getting washed away by that flow. This supernatural presence did not leave me. It forced me to read the Bible which changed my whole outlook on life. Science says that our whole universe is finely tuned for life. For instance, if the expansion rate of the universe had been slightly weaker, gravity would have pulled all matter back into a “Big crunch”. I am not talking about, merely a one or two per cent reduction in the universe’s expansion rate. Also, the size, the temperature, the relative proximity and the chemical makeup of our earth, sun and moon need to be exactly right for life to exist. This knowledge that there is an excellent design behind everything helps us to surrender even our pain to the wonderful designer who can bring beauty out of every pain.