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Bengaluru:

It’s been six months since Sharanappa R, 75, lost his childhood friend to the novel coronavirus. His friend, a 76-year-old man who had returned home to Karnataka’s Kalaburagi district from Saudi Arabia in early March, was the first person to die after contracting covid-19 in India. For Sharanappa, the fact that he could not say goodbye still troubles him.

“I have seen many deaths but this was different. We could not even see his face, one last time. It’s been even harder on the family," says Sharanappa.

For those who succumb to the virus, the last days are lonely and painful, and for families of victims, the restrictions to prevent further spread of contagion have made grieving as well as moving on so much harder. In the early days of the pandemic, even final goodbyes on video calls were not allowed. Nurses, doctors and paramedical staff are the ones with patients in their final moments.

“It’s the worst thing that can happen to a brother. I couldn’t give him that last hug, I could not even see his face," said Darshan, who wanted his surname withheld, the brother of a 42-year-old who died after contracting the virus last month.

Loss is deepened by the grief of having left a loved one alone at the end though it is beyond one’s control. “Until the last two weeks when she got sick, we’d lived in the same house all our lives," says Aradhana S from Mangaluru, who lost her 58-year-old cousin to covid-19. “As responsible citizens we have to comply with the government regulations, and we do, but it is hard. It will haunt me all my life that we could not be with her in her last moments," she says.

The Union Health Ministry has set guidelines and protocols for hospitals, health workers and families on last rites, funerals and handling the dead. States like Karnataka, Delhi and West Bengal have eased rules so that families can get a last glimpse of the person from a distance. Karnataka now allows the family of a deceased covid-19 patient to view the body either at the isolation ward or at the mortuary. But touching the body is strictly prohibited due to the risk of contagion. Hospitals in West Bengal now put a transparent cover on the face of the deceased so that family members can see it before cremation.

Worldwide, regulations are in place to ensure that families are safe. The US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) has a detailed funeral guidance manual for individuals and families, and even for the grieving process after. It asks families to use technology to connect virtually during the grieving process and avoid meeting. It has also suggested that family and friends share stories and pictures of the deceased and mourn virtually, while requesting them to consider changing traditional rituals or practice.

But more than the rules governing funerals, it’s the stigma that has really hurt families of those who died of covid-19. Many neighbourhoods protested against burials or creations in their localities. Often families were ostracized after a death. “As if the pain of losing our father was not enough, we had to carry the body from one area to another for three hours before we could finally lay him to rest," said a woman who lost her father in Bengaluru. “Then we had to deal with the barbs of neighbours."

Grief counsellors too have realized they have to start counselling people from the time they test positive. “Normally, grief counselling begins only after the death of a person. Now, for many covid means death so we need to reassure them that they can recover, they need to stay optimistic," says K U Manjula, chief counsellor at the Karnataka government’s Jeevasarthakathe organ donation agency.

In her 11 years of experience as a grief counsellor, she’s often had to deal with people losing their temper or refusing to believe it when they’re told someone is brain dead. “With covid-19, we not only have to break the news of the death but also tell the family they cannot go near the body," she says. “Consoling them about the death becomes harder."

The sense of being “left behind" haunts those who lose loved ones. Last week marked five months since Mangala S lost her 48-year-old sister to the virus. “Losing her and still living with her family is painful," says Mangala who is unmarried and has been living with her sister’s family in Mysuru. It feels like the root of the tree has gone, only the branches are left. She died four days after she tested positive for the virus."

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