Epidemiologist Parnali Dhar Chowdhury of Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC hasn’t been able to visit her parents in Kolkata for three years now.
A 69-year-old lady had to be hospitalized recently because of the uncertainty over meeting her son who had got married in Europe during the pandemic in her absence. “With no surety of when she will be able to meet them again, she stopped interacting with anyone and reached a stage of complete mutism,” said psychiatrist Jai Ranjan Ram.Seventy three-year-old Arun Datta has been living in fear ever since the pandemic broke out.
“I have various comorbidities. I don’t fear death but with both my children abroad, I worry about who will perform my last rights and look after my ageing family members here,” Datta said. Wife Kalpana Dutta is used to their son living abroad for 20 years now. “But the pandemic has suddenly made me scared. What if I don’t get to see him ever again?” she asked.
Psychologist Anuttama Banerjee is noticing a sense of “letting go” among some parents. “On the one hand, they are terribly missing their children. On the other hand, some are relieved that the children are in a safer place and don’t want them to return,” she said.
The mobile phone is the only medium of communication for Massachusetts-based IT professional Debasish Dutta Roy with his mother who was seriously unwell with Covid a few weeks back.
Children and parents are even getting into debates over this issue. According to Banerjee, this could be an impact of untimely deaths of young adults in the second wave. “For parents, it doesn’t matter if they get the best of treatment. But their children should not suffer. It is as if parents are negotiating with the ultimate by offering themselves should there be a choice,” she added.
Psychiatrists say the trauma of non-resident Indians unable to meet their parents is acute. Virtual reunions over foggy mobile phone screens are painful reminders of helplessness on both sides. Few, who lost a parent during the pandemic, are grappling with the fear of losing the other while still being far away. “There was someone who tried to return to Kolkata for good because his mother used to live here alone. But she expired before he could move. Now, everything is pointless for him. Along with the bereavement process, there is overwhelming guilt,” Banerjee said.
Till 2018, epidemiologist Parnali Dhar Chowdhury of Johns Hopkins University used to visit her parents in Kolkata twice a year. “It’s been three years since I went over. Both my parents were hospitalized during the first wave of Covid. Yet, I couldn’t go down. My in-laws were Covid positive too. When I was involved in Covid research at Hopkins and knew what to do, my nearest ones were not getting my support. It was tough,” she said from Washington DC.
Massachusetts-based IT professional Debasish Dutta Roy couldn’t come down to Kolkata a few weeks back when his mother was seriously unwell with Covid. “I’ve never felt so helpless in my 19 years of stay in the US. The nature of the disease reduces the support one seeks,” he said.
Travel restrictions during the second wave have forced many to put their Kolkata visits on hold. Some now suffer from an overwhelming sense of emptiness when they see others reuniting abroad. “This is causing inexplicable personal trauma. Many suffer from a guilt of abandoning the parents in times of need and are wondering if they have been able to discharge the responsibilities of being a good child,” Ram said.
Despite the challenges of international travel, Louisiana-based Aparajita Dutta returned to Kolkata to be with her parents this April. “I spent sleepless nights dealing with the guilt of not providing the same privilege to my parents and my aunt that I was getting in the US. This community of ailing old parents with children living in abroad need an organized set-up to help them in distress,” she said.