It's okay to grieve: How this mental health helpline is helping those who lost someone to COVID-19

Pallium India, an NGO based out of Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram has set up the pan-India mental health helpline — Sukh Dukh
Pic: Edex Live
Pic: Edex Live

We have lost more than 2.58 lakh people to the Coronavirus over the past year and two months. While whatever fast-depleting resources we have are being directed towards the ailing, not many think about what happens to grieving families who have lost someone.

Pallium India, an NGO based out of Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram has set up a pan-India mental health helpline — Sukh Dukh — to help the bereaved come to terms with the death of their loved ones. The helpline is now available in Assamese, Bengali, English, Hindi, Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu and has counsellors across the country. Pallium India is working with Caregiver Saathi, MIND India and Edjacklegs for the initiative.

But acceptance doesn't come easy when you do not get to say one last goodbye, said Dr MR Rajagopal, founder and chairman of Pallium India and a palliative care expert. "Performing the last rites, getting to see the face of their loved one gives people the final closure which is not possible during COVID-19. This makes it difficult to get to acceptance," said Dr Rajagopal as he explained the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Even though it was started in October 2020, the number of calls to the helpline increased exponentially over the past two months. But people who are affected, seldom call. "A lot of times, it's a friend or a family member who gets to know about the helpline and connects the person who is grieving," added Dr Rajagopal.

People of all ages have been calling the helpline. Lekshmi Premanand, a professional psychologist with experience of 22 years, coordinates the initiative and has had some conversation that will be with her forever. "I got a call from a young man whose mother had died and father was in hospital. He wasn't sure if he would be able to see his father again. But he was ready to speak. He spoke to me for more than an hour and I listened. When people open up or vent, it is easier for them to cope," said Thiruvananthapuram-based Lekshmi. But in this current scenario, people do not even have that option because the families are either quarantined or they themselves have COVID. "After someone passes, you generally have relatives coming over and you can talk about the person's memories, it helps accept the loss. But now you are just left with the last few days of suffering. COVID-19 deaths are also sudden so they do not give you the time to come to terms with the fact," added Dr Rajagopal.

Most of the callers though have been urged by others to seek help. "I just connected with two elderly women  — sisters-in-law — who lost their husbands to the virus and their children live abroad. Their kids got them on the call," Lekshmi said. What advice do you give someone who has lost people so close to them? "It's okay to grieve," opined Lekshmi.

When you experience such loss, it is not uncommon for people to try and escape that reality — and end up attempting suicide. But how do you approach a grieving person and ask them not to commit suicide? "We ask them if they have such thoughts or have had such thought n the past. If they haven't had such thought it doesn't affect them," said Lekshmi.

There have been cases where the person needed clinical help. In that case, the helpline connects them to a psychiatrist for further assistance, said Dr Rajagopal. But does telecommunication work for therapy? "It is never a supplement for face-to-face interaction but these are extraordinary times and we have to manage any way we can. We are also trying out video calls wherever possible but if the network is bad then the person loses interest repeating the same thing over and over again," said Dr Rajagopal.

Helpline number: +91 759 4052 605 /

Languages: Hindi, English, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Assamese, Bengali and Malayalam

Timings: 9AM-5PM

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