“Okay everyone, step back, it’s time to take her body away.” The voice was distant over Skype. My father, uncle and I huddled around the computer thousands of miles away. My mom was the only family member attending my grandmother’s funeral ceremony in our family’s hometown of Anantapur, India. When the call ended, we stared at the ground blankly. We were unsure how to talk about the tears threatening to cascade down our faces. The silence was deafening.
Death seems to be a forbidden topic. The plethora of euphemisms — “passed away,” “isn’t with us anymore,” “in a better place” — is itself evidence of our society’s uneasiness around it. We don’t bring up the word in conversation because of our fearful superstitions. And there’s a whole movie industry that preys on our fears of death — and discussing death — with horror movies like “Insidious,” “Sinister” and “Annabelle.”
Every day, my friends and I exchange headlines — “On the brink of disaster” or “Coronavirus surges across the U.S.” “Oh, looks like the world is going to end again,” we say to each other. We have been desensitized to death. And sadly, it’s people — whether those who don’t wear masks and maintain distance or those in power who reject public health policies — who are contributing to this tragedy. Why are we letting them get away with it? Because when we fear talking about death and its painful consequences, we ignore the gravity of death on our lives.
Having interned at hospitals, I knew death was normal. But I’d never actively processed it until I was asked to perform post-mortem care.
In the end-of-life care unit, I knew a patient had died when everyone started to move away from the room. The first time I stepped towards the room, I had a barrage of immature thoughts: “Will this patient’s ghost haunt me? What if this ghost wants to avenge their death? Will it follow me home?”
The process, however, wasn’t dramatic at all. The nurse and I quickly packed up the patient’s body, finishing post-mortem care in silence. Still contemplating my utter disbelief, I watched the unaffected nurse move on to her next patient.
Unlike that nurse, I’d never talked openly about death or experienced it in-person before. When I went home, my parents noticed my silence. I felt heavy as I apprehensively told them what happened. My parents responded calmly, with a surprising openness. They discussed the Hindu idea of moksha, saying that death was a way to attain peace. This was completely different from what I grew up with in school, which was that death is final. I hadn’t known there were multiple perspectives on death. I still haven’t yet grappled with complicated ideas of rebirth, suffering and duty in Hinduism. But, I found comfort in connecting with my parents about my vulnerabilities and fears.
Being vulnerable is not easy — every time you trust someone, you also risk getting hurt by them. But to heal as a society, we need to be vulnerable. With the coronavirus pandemic, death has inevitably affected more people than we know — maybe your teacher, your friend, your neighbor. It’s paramount that we’re there for each other. So, let’s talk about death.
NISHITA AMANCHARLA is a junior in Saybrook College. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.