Good grief

By: Michael L. Tan - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | October 28,2020 - 08:00 AM

This year’s All Saint’s Day will be somewhat difficult for many Filipinos who lost loved ones during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown.

This was not necessarily deaths from COVID-19. But because of all the confusion and uncertainty, especially with the long delays in testing results (sometimes coming out after the patient had already died), many hospitals and physicians had to presume COVID-19 as the cause of admission into the hospital and, later, death.

With COVID-19 as the default diagnosis, many families were torn apart, with relatives not allowed to be with their loved ones once they were admitted into the hospital.

And if the patient died, the remains were often hurriedly put into body bags that were zipped up with instructions not to open them up again, even for relatives. Wakes were initially forbidden and cremations made mandatory. These rules have since been relaxed, but wakes continue to be discouraged and a cap is placed on the number of people who can attend the funeral.

I have many friends who lost loved ones during the last seven months, and what’s most difficult has been the lack of closure.

This should not be surprising. We “learn” to grieve through culture, and our culture, as with many other Asian countries, emphasize long and elaborate wakes and funerals, with much outward expressions of grief, sometimes bordering on the hysterical, which are in a way “healthy” because they allow for quick catharsis.

COVID-19 cut down the rituals, which can make grieving complicated. “Bitin” (left hanging) is the term I frequently hear from friends.

Here are some ways to deal with the difficulties around grieving.

First, recognize that “good grief” or “productive grief” is important, allowing ourselves to confront the range of emotions — sadness, loneliness, as well as gratitude, maybe even relief, especially over a loved one’s prolonged illness — that comes with death.

There should be no guilt around the feelings, which might even include anger with someone, even a parent, with whom our relationships were strained. Allow time to handle the negative feelings and come to terms with the need to forgive, and to let the anger simmer down.

Second, create personal rituals for yourself. Feel free to talk with the dead, doing what you used to do with them when they were alive — politics, movies, tsismis. Do this with the ones you love. The ones you didn’t like, let them be. It’s crazy to pick a fight with the dead.

Arrange for people — relatives, mutual friends — to come together, even online. Strength in numbers. Nothing grand, a short formal part with prayers and then, instead of eulogies, just recalling the good times.

Then plan for better times ahead when a memorial service can be held. Many of my friends who lost loved ones kept the cremation ashes, intending to have a large gathering later, a parangal or tribute, which can be longer, complete with PowerPoint and music. Knowing there will be such an event gives us a horizon in the future, an assurance that the deceased is remembered.

Finally, send out a social signal by bringing back the mourning patch. It’s a way of telling people you are grieving, and may need some space. But it can also be a way to allow people to ask. They may have heard, but are not sure, but your mourning patch says, “Yes, she’s gone and I miss her,” allowing people to offer condolences and comfort.

Michelle Mariposa, my research assistant and a psychologist, lost her father on March 17, finding out only through an internet news item that gave his patient number! I asked her if she’d like to share some advice, and this is an excerpt from her reply:

“It was only recently that I realized that grieving is something you take with you in your everyday life, with or without ceremony. The few months I allowed myself to simply be in a sad and pained state without pressuring myself to get back to work, the times that I would allow myself [to] feel a semblance of joy only to remember that my dad was no longer here to share these joys with me, the moments spent studying, recording, and performing music to keep up with my musical life… Grieving gives a different dimension to the things one would do on the usual, and it seems like this dimension is something that will stay for the rest of my life, and with or without ceremony, I’m okay with this.”

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