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Would you know my name?

CHASING TOFF - Christopher De Venecia () - February 6, 2009 - 12:00am

December 16 was not your typical Thursday night at the De Venecia household. The home that had been usually swamped with personalities of all shapes and sizes was empty in what would be a rare occurrence in the constantly bustling political domicile. Where the blackest of night and quietest of environs pervaded the two-tiered fortress from inside and out, a yuletide tree stayed lit and kept its form on the De Venecias’ living room area.

On the emerald tree hung the most gracious décor and Christmas lights, bringing with it the excitement and exhilaration of a brand-new year. Then House Speaker Jose De Venecia was clocking in extra hours at the Batasang Pambansa, home to the 250-some legislators of the Philippine Congress when a fire suddenly ignited from the exploding Christmas lights and ate away through the second floor of the politician’s abode. His wife Gina had been fixing her files in the master’s bedroom along with long-time secretary Nicky Roxas when the former was told to evacuate by one of her attendants on the premise of a looming threat and the assurance that her family was safe and no one else had been home.

Gina and her attendants hurried through a fire escape towards the back end of the master’s bedroom, leaving possessions and aspects of their collective past behind. Meanwhile, the De Venecias’ youngest daughter, KC, who the help had assumed was out with her brother at Starbucks was sleeping soundly in her kuya’s bedroom. She awoke in distress. Unable to find an escape route through the padlocked windows and the pitch-black hall, her instincts bade her to retreat to the bathroom. The brave girl turned on all possible water sources, wetted a towel, covered herself, and hoped for a Christmas miracle.

No, it wasn’t a typical Thursday night at Casa De Venecia. As the smoke grew thicker and the flames grew wilder, a home was rapidly slipping away from Gina’s midst, and unknowingly, the life of her precious 16-year-old. KC became the fire’s most devastating casualty. “She was exactly like me,” recalls Gina of her youngest daughter. “Strong-willed, super smart, very stubborn, sweet when she wants to be, and strong in character.”

The 59-year-old businesswoman and women and children’s rights advocate founded among several other philanthropic institutions, the INA Foundation, or Inang Naulila sa Anak, a support group for grieving mothers. The word “Ina” is essentially “mother” in the Filipino vernacular. Gina relates that KC was a young woman who was always in a hurry. “She wanted to try everything. Drinking, driving, traveling on her own… She lived life to the fullest.”

Manay Gina, as she is known to the public, underscores how difficult it was to suffer the loss of a child — a pain, she reckons, one would never wish upon anyone, even unto his or her own enemy. “I was in a state of shock. I felt completely numb,” relates Gina.

Maria Lourdes “Honey” Arellano Carandang, a 64-year-old clinical psychologist who is also a professor at the University of the Philippines, relates that mothers often experience various stages of grief upon the loss of a child.

First, there is a stage of disbelief — when she is unable to recognize the circumstances of her adversity. “It’s like what Gina says, a state of shock that you can’t believe it’s happening,” says Dr. Honey as she segues into a series of questioning as the next stage of grief. “Why me? Why did God allow this to happen? What did I do wrong?”

These questions are often followed by bouts of anger as a form of volatile reaction. Then finally, there is acceptance. “But I need to stress that these stages are not sequential. Most mothers go through varying emotional stages depending on their mental state,” adds Dr. Honey.

 The clinical psychologist touched base with Gina shortly after the political wife’s unfortunate tragedy in 2004. Carandang had also been a victim of a fire accident in 1981. “One of the best ways to heal is to know that you are not alone. And through this, mothers are able to rise from their deepest pain. Poetically speaking, it’s like turning grieving into dancing.”

Three months had passed before Gina finally accepted the death of her daughter KC. She had often spun the story in her head that her youngest daughter was just abroad, on a prolonged US vacation. It wasn’t until she had to take a grief-counseling program with fellow INA member Tin Manalac that she came face to face with the reality of KC’s death. “One of the things we had to do to become a grief mentor was to look at the death certificate of our child,” relates Gina.

Memories of the tragedy still haunt her to this day, especially on occasions like April 6, KC’s birthday, the fateful December 16, and Christmas Day. “When I’m alone, I start thinking of her. During weddings, I get really depressed because I know she can never get married anymore,” says Gina. “If it wasn’t for INA, I might have never been able to start the process of moving on.”

Dr. Honey relates that if one were to look at healing or the act of “moving on” as a form of recovery from trauma, then it can be achieved. But it doesn’t guarantee that the person won’t find himself or herself facing depression. The psychology professor says, “Even if you’ve gone through the whole grieving process, on average after four years, you can still feel sad. But that’s not grieving. That’s just your new identity — a parent who has lost a child.”

It is not in the natural order of the universe that children pass on before their parents. Novelist Jay Neugeboren writes, “A wife who loses a husband is called a widow. A husband who loses a wife is called a widower. A child who loses his parents is called an orphan. But… there is no word for a parent who loses a child, that’s how awful the loss is!”

On the prospect of advancing or beginning the healing process, Gina relates, “I think you just have to force yourself to move on, otherwise you get stuck in your grief. In my case, KC served as my inspiration for helping other mothers cope with their grief.” She and the other members of INA turned to painting and beading, aside from their advocacy work, as avenues to channel grief into creative undertakings.

At present, INA has over 250 members, all mothers who have lost a child, and a main office at Batasan Hills. “It’s a seven-room building that my husband put up through the help of DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development),” relates Gina. The INA Healing Center offers free counseling and livelihood programs that can help alleviate the situations of underprivileged, grieving mothers across the archipelago.

Eric Clapton once wrote about the pain he felt, following the demise of his four-year-old son Conor in 1991. The song he wrote, Tears in Heaven, went something like this: “Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven? Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven?” Clapton went on to win three Grammy awards with this poignant tune despite the tragedy that struck him while halfway across the world. Gina and her fellow INA members continue to take up the call for parents to share their stories, open their hearts, and serve as an inspiration to other grieving mothers out there. If only for having transformed their grief into something beautiful, meaningful and truly worthwhile, the world is surely blessed to have people like Gina, the members of INA, and their guiding light, Dr. Honey — phoenixes who rose from the ashes, overcame their grief, and made a great difference. The song continues. “I must be strong and carry on… ‘Coz I know I don’t belong, here in heaven...”

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Catch your breath and let me know what you think at imcalledtoffee@mac.com. For more details on the INA Foundation, visit http://manayginadevenecia.blogspot.com.

ARELLANO CARANDANG DE VENECIAS DR. HONEY GINA GRIEF INA MOTHERS
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