Why Grief is Especially Hard for Filipinos in COVID-19

Written by Ally Publico

Even four years after my mother passed away, I still cry as though it happened yesterday. I cry when I eat her favorite food, or when our family celebrates birthdays knowing one of us is missing. I cry when I look at photos or search through old albums remembering happy times that no one ever realized would be cut so short.

At some point in our lives, each one of us will have to suffer from the loss of someone we hold dear. It’s just that this year has made grieving a whole lot worse than it should be.

Grief and Mourning

When we think of grief, we often think of crying at funerals, gathering around caskets, or people gathered in the rain during burials. But as I’ve experienced grief, I realized it doesn’t only come when the loved one has passed away. It comes after the diagnosis, the phone call, or the bad news.

The real, everyday picture of grief is very different from what people see during funerals. Grief is the sudden feeling of loneliness listening to a loved one’s favorite song–and realizing they’re not around to sing it with you. Grief is a perfectly good day that ends in tears when you come home and have no one to share it with. Grief is surviving through a global crisis and carrying the label of “family member who lost a loved one to COVID-19.”

Grief doesn’t stay at the funeral parlor or the cemetery. When a loved one leaves, grief is what we take home.

Grieving and mourning are two different things. While grief is the mix of emotions that take place after a sudden life change, mourning is the public expression of grief. And for someone who has lost a loved one this year, the “new normal” isn’t just about living with COVID-19. The new normal is about living a whole new life without their husband, child, brother, sister, father, mother, grandfather–a life that is sorrowfully forced to continue despite the loss of someone dear.

Isolated Grief

My 91-year-old grandfather passed away from cancer within the first few weeks of the ECQ. He passed away here in our home, where he lived for 14 years. While part of me was prepared to let him go, it was a struggle to see my relatives stressing over the logistics of his funeral. Even my father almost had a heart attack when his blood pressure dropped from the shock and heaviness of the news.

Especially for Filipinos, we rely so much on the traditions of wakes and funerals for our own closure. This year, we have realized just how much we need the comforting words and stories of good friends to make it through a lifetime without our loved one. We need the embraces of those who are still alive, who share in our pain. We need the closure of saying goodbye to a body that comes with parting words and eulogies.

We rely so much on these moments of reunion, especially in times of grief. And this pandemic has, essentially, robbed us of the therapeutic opportunity to mourn together.

While we are left with grief, the mourning process has been taken away from us.

What it Means to Process Grief

After my mother passed away, an orange butterfly would visit my bedroom window every day for a few weeks. It was very unusual for me to see one, let alone visiting me every morning. But for some reason, I thought it was sent by my mom. For as long as I saw it, I felt comforted. It didn’t have to make sense why it spoke so much to me–all that mattered was, it did.

I like to believe our hearts look for meaning as a way to attach the memory of our loved ones to something honorable. And looking for meaning comes with processing grief.

Every person who has lost a loved one this year suffers from complicated grief–a kind of grief made more difficult due to the circumstances surrounding the loved one’s loss. If you talk with someone who has grieved this year, you may find many of them wishing they could’ve done more for their loved one. You may find some of them blaming others for not attending to their loved ones enough. Some of them may regret being angry or not having said all that they want to say. But no matter how painful their stories may be, each one needs to be treated with absolute empathy and compassion–not fixing, not advising, and not being told to move on.

Processing emotions and honoring the loved one does not come right away. Like a broken arm, a broken heart needs its own time to heal. And I’d like to say that again–grief deals not with a broken mind, but a broken heart.

We need to understand that we cannot rush ourselves to grieve or mourn. We also cannot rush other people from grieving or mourning, and it should be up to the griever how he/she wants to process and honor the loved one. While words such as “You need to be strong,” or “They’re in a much better place right now,” may be said to cheer someone up, these don’t actually help the grieving family. At this time, every griever needs to feel empowered to hold onto what the relationship with their loved one meant for them.

A few days after my grandfather passed away, I painted a mural in our living room to give honor to my grandparents and my mom. As a family we were not able to mourn together with our other relatives, but creating something in their memory became a way of thanking them for the life they lived.

Maybe this year may truly usher in the “new normal”–even if it means the new normal of grief and loss. If you have a friend or loved one who has lost someone close to them during this time, be as open-hearted as you can. Sometimes all people need is just someone who is willing to listen, and sit beside them as they lead their new normal.