26 May 2010

The Sheer Anguish of Grieving Without A Body

Last year, I wrote this lengthy piece about the manner in which my Mom passed away. I think Dad deserves a bit of a mention as well; belated, though, this may be.

One morning almost four years ago, when I woke up, I found a text message from my sister asking me to text her back when it would be convenient for her to call me. I immediately knew what was up; so when my sister did make that call, she did not even have to find a way to break the bad news to me gently.

“Walâ na ang Daddy?” I said to her as soon as I picked up the receiver. I remember it sounded more like a statement than a question. There are some things in life that you just sort of know, particularly when it involves family.

I tell the young people that I work with often enough that one just never – as in, NEVER – outgrows one’s own parents. That is a plain and simple fact!

At about the time this happened, my Dad was already in his late eighties. Although he used to be a colonel in the Philippine Air Force, he also fought side-by-side with the Americans in World War II and, thus, felt a sense of affinity with the former colonial masters.

Twice – once in the fifties and then again in the sixties – he was sent by the Air Force to the United States to undergo training. He must have liked what he saw. In the mid-nineties, after Mom had passed away, he fulfilled his dream of immigrating to America.

That was where he lived out the rest of his life. Although he was based in California, by the time the good Lord beckoned, he was with my youngest brother in Texas. Although Dad had been diabetic for some time and his health had been deteriorating, it was when he was visiting my kid brother that his health took a turn for the worse. He had to be taken to a nearby hospital, where he had to be confined for several months.

I know, having been with Mom up to her deathbed, how much my brother must have sacrificed during the months Dad was confined. It is not easy at all taking care of an elderly parent when – you just know – his or her number is about to be called. Yet, when I look at things another way, I cannot help but praise the goodness of the Lord in just seeing to it that Dad was with his youngest son in a foreign land when the time came for him to go.

Two days before Dad died, my brother instinctively knew that the writing was on the wall. He then proceeded to make international calls to the three of us still based here in the Philippines as well as to my sister in Auckland, so we could all speak to Dad. My Dad’s tongue was swollen from the complications of diabetes, so that all I could hear coming through the receiver when I was speaking to him were the unintelligible sounds he was trying to make. I could not make anything of the sounds – they were no more than groans.

I tried to speak to him normally and steeled myself – despite the hemorrhage inside my heart – to try to sound reassuring… Yet, I also somehow knew that the angels were already calling out to him from where they stood by the gates. All he needed was to hear everyone’s voice and to be reassured before moving on into the bright lights…

And then the call from my sister came two days later… I knew what was coming; but didn’t I say that one just never outgrows one’s parents? I broke down. It was the most natural thing to happen, in spite of the fact that my Dad had been living the twilight years of his life; in spite of the fact that I had been seeing him but occasionally for the better part of 12 years; and in spite of the fact that I knew it was a matter of time before he had to go.

In our family – I tell people often enough – the way we were brought up, I guess, was to not wear our hearts on our sleeves. So, despite my grief – or was it because of – I turned to work as a sort of therapy, something which – I hoped – would make the forgetting easier and hasten the process of my healing.

Who was I kidding, though? Although, outwardly to everyone, I appeared perfectly composed and normal, in fact every idle moment of thought flew out to my Dad lying in a casket somewhere in Texas. And of course, I dreaded the coming of the night, when I could not hide from my thoughts…

Believe me; the grief was extraordinarily severe because there was no body to grieve over...

In the past, whenever I went to wakes, I tried to avoid talking to the bereaved about the circumstances involving the deaths of their loved ones. Just trying to be sensitive, I suppose, thinking as I used to that asking them to talk about it was like poking a finger into an open wound.

It was only when my Mom died – the first death in the immediate family – that I finally understood that the act of telling that story over and over again to all who care to listen is actually therapeutic. It not only hastens acceptance of the loss; it also allows one to get the grief out of one’s system.

Now, how does one – pray tell – do this when there is no body to grieve over and no wake for the bereaved to tell their stories over and over until they expunge the grief from deep inside themselves?

So, now you probably understand how difficult the next three days were for me. On the outside, I was utterly professional; on the inside, I felt something like glass that was shattered to pieces.

It was only when the good people of the formation office planned a prayer service that things gained a semblance of order inside my head. Personnel were invited from different offices to attend the service. At the end of it, even as people started to leave, I found my voice and gave a short message thanking the people – on behalf of my family – for just being there.

It was instant catharsis! Without even expecting it, I suddenly had the coming to terms and the closure that eluded me and totally seemed out of reach for three days. All it took was for even just a small portion of the community to gather and condole with the bereaved – in this case, me.

We Filipinos, we are a nation of ordinary people like you and I whose families have been cast all over the world by circumstance like dust in the wind. This story I just told, this is repeated continuously in countless households where loved ones have sought their destinies in distant shores.

For those left behind, the ties are never severed. Vast oceans may separate families over long periods of time; but everyone always pines for those moments when the members can come together even for the briefest of reunions.

And everyone dreads the sort of call I received from my sister that morning almost four years ago…

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