GRIEF IN THE FILIPINO FAMILY CONTEXT

As related by Cathy Babao Guballa

I suppose I should begin by saying that I am a Filipina who comes from dual traditions that of Catholicism and Born-again Christianity. In my country, religion, or one’s faith in God plays a very important role in how one copes and deals with death. It also has a huge bearing on one’s mindset and attitude towards the discussion of death in general.

I must also tell you that I am not typical of most Filipinos. Only around 5 % of our population has moved from Catholicism to Born-again Christianity. The shift has taken place mainly because of significant life experiences, many of them relating to loss. Up until the age of twenty five I was a practising Catholic. I’ve been going to worship services at our Christian church for the last ten years. Here’s what I have observed and found.

Traditions and Rituals To Commemorate a Death

In the Catholic church and the Christian church, upon death, a family member accompanies the body to the mortuary and does not leave the body "by itself". It is imperative that someone, particularly a family member, accompany the body from the time it leaves the hospital or home to the mortuary or funeraria (funeral parlor) to make sure that preparation is done properly. One of course need not stay in the room where there body is being prepared but at least within the same premises.

It is the family members duty to bring with him/her the clothes that will be worn by the deceased for the burial. No jewelry is to be worn, and no shoes. In both traditions I belong to, but more so in the Catholic faith (or this is probably Filipino custom), it is believed that the dead will not reach heaven if he is donning too many ornaments. If a rosary is placed with the deceased, the rosary must be cut. I do not know the exact explanation for this.

The family usually holds a wake that can last from three to seven days, depending upon the family’s decision or if they are still awaiting the arrival of family members from overseas. Wakes are held wither at funeral homes, churches or private homes (this is done usually in the provinces and not in the big cities like Manila). Black is the traditional color of mourning although many families have become "progressive" now and opt to wear either white or green or blue. Red and loud colors are a definite no-no.

In the Catholic tradition, a nine-day novena (prayer) is held every evening after the Holy Mass and a celebration is held on the deceased’s 40th day as this is believed to be the day he/she ascends into heaven. Among Born-again Christians the 9 day and 40 day prayers and celebrations are dispensed with. We believe that upon death, the should goes directly to heaven and there is no need to pray for intercession. There is also a portion of the population called Catholic Christians and together with the born-again group, their wakes are, I would I say happier and less solemn or morose. Death in a way, though difficult for those left behind, for both these groups is seen as the end of all pain and suffering and entry into eternal life. When my father died I was still steeped in the Catholic tradition and when my son died I was with the Christian church. Though both losses were very painful, I can say, that I had an "easier" time accepting my son’s death because of what I believed in through my Christian faith.

Beliefs that Offer Comfort / Beliefs on Life after Death

In the Catholic tradition, we believe that the deceased is now in a better place where there is no longer pain and suffering and that the dear departed is now more "powerful" as he/she is able to watch you from where they are. They are able to send signs and visions to guide you as you live your life here on earth.

Christians believe that if you accept Jesus Christ in your heart then you are saved and will go straight into the kingdom of heaven where there is no pain and no infirmities whatsoever. It is also the family's belief that if you live a life in accordance with God’s word, when your time on earth is up, you shall be reunited with your dear departed in the Kingdom of heaven.

Though my church now does not believe in visions or signs, I still adhere to that. These beliefs offer me comfort in knowing that my loved ones are just around and happy in God’s kingdom. In our church we are discouraged from "talking to the dead" even through pictures. I sometimes have these running conversations in my head (not that I’m going crazy) with my son and I see no harm in doing that. When I spot a particular butterfly, I relate that to either my son or my father. These are my comfort mechanisms and not dictated by faith of any kind.

Healthy and Unhealthy Grief

I suppose unhealthy grief is when after a considerable time has passed since the death (say, after two years) and the bereaved has ceased to go back, or create a productive life after a loss. If all you think about is the departed one and that you keep pining for what was lost, unable to build a new life or re-invest in your life, then in a way, it becomes unhealthy. If someone becomes obsessed and has been unable to take the relationship with the deceased on another plane / level then that is unhealthy or complicated too. Unhealthy grief can be brought to a healthy level but it takes time and effort on both the part of the bereaved person and his support groups - family, friends, church, school or professional help. There is definitely a way to step out of the shadows of unhealthy grief. It can be done.

Relationship between Private Grief and Public Mourning

My country is composed of 7,000 islands and believe it or not the diversity in mourning styles is tremendous! There are areas in the Philippines where "professional mourners" are hired to weep and wail during the wake and burial. This is not common in the cities, more in the small towns and provinces. However, Filipinos in general belong to two types - those who are very public about their grief - they wail and flail all over the place - and those who mourn with "dignity and grace". And like men, the world over, Filipino men also, keep the mourning as private as they can. Refusing to shed tears or if they do, they express it very briefly.

I have learned to be true to myself but I reserve the abundance of my tears for when I am alone. Previously, in my father’s death, I tried not to cry in public but this time around, with my son’s death, I just let the tears flow when they wanted to and I have found it healthier to do so. Though in both cases, I still find myself crying a lot in private. I guess what I am trying to say is that I have grown, "more public" or open about my sadness rather than I was when I was sixteen.

Relevance of Group Support

I am an advocate of group support and a firm believer in this. Group support is a relatively new thing in the Philippines, in its infancy stage in fact. I found group support on the Net and this is something that I would like to set up here. There is one support group for widows but that’s just about it. Then there is a support group for parents who have lost their children to cancer. There is no support offered for children at all - those who have lost parents or siblings, and I think that’s really sad. I’d like to pioneer that here and maybe I will in the year 2001. We are a culture that is at the same time private and yet thrives on relationships. I think support groups would really be great to have in this country if only more people would be open about their pain and take the initiatives to set up such groups.