We live, we die

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

Will this sorrow… this rage… this grief ever really subside? Is it supposed to? Is this normal? It’s the rate of news about another friend or loved one’s death per day that is knocking me sideways.

So many cousins, uncles and aunts, friends from all walks of life and, of course, me are being swept up in the shocking, inconsolable, wretchedness of having lost someone very close too soon. So many, that I can’t help but conclude that something important is happening to the way that we relate to each other and the world.

When I travel to Cambodia, I always wonder what it must be like for a people that went through such a genocide. No family was untouched by the inhuman brutality of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. So many people were killed, imprisoned and tortured that nobody really knows the exact number. They lost count. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the entire country has some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Reading and listening to the accounts of survivors challenges me, as a journalist, to find a way to honor their horrific experiences, be grateful for the sharing of their stories, without numbing my emotions while at the same time not becoming traumatized myself.

It is the same when I visit Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Often, people from the same village would gather in one place to recount once more the long and terrible journeys they undertook to get there and remember those who didn’t make it with them.

There are no soldiers shelling us in our lockdown. No thugs dragging us out of our homes, raping us, torturing us, as is happening even as I write in Myanmar, where the people resist the violent coup by the military.

Still, I hear the same emotions in the stories we are sharing, we survivors (so far) of the pandemic. There is frustration and helplessness. Anger, fury and regret. The struggle to make sense of a life that’s ended. The trauma of shock and difficult memories.

In my family alone, which is far better off than most, we are mourning four people who’ve died in the past three weeks. On top of that, three other friends have succumbed to the pandemic and the family of another close friend is mourning the death of four members.

These are warzone type numbers.

When death tolls and case counts are delivered over the news, they don’t even attempt to capture the very real damage that is being done through grief and trauma to individual lives, to the fortunes of whole families and the future of communities.

I am not a practising Catholic but I recognize the very real support and comfort that some of my family derive from their faith and so I go to the masses, the memorials and the novenas online and off. It’s a matter of personal importance to me to be present if I possibly can to these events. I suspect I am not the only person now finding I do not have the time to go to all the rituals for the dead that I would usually like to.

These are truly unusual times.

My cousin Martin Manahan is an obstetrician. At a novena for my Tita Fely Pedrosa, he spoke about how he usually signs birth certificates, but the other day he found himself signing the death certificate for our aunt. “Why has this happened?” he told us he asked himself. Surrounded, at least online, by us all, he said he thought it was to bring us as family together.

I wish I could accept this as a reason. Perhaps it’s because of my faulty faith that I consider it more a consequence than a reason. We come together because that way we can share the emptiness we feel and fill it precisely by being together. My good friend in Myanmar/Burma spoke to me about how grief is love that is looking for a place to go.

I don’t think this coming week is going to get any better. I will be clicking windows on my computer accessing one novena after another mass and even paying the ultimate tribute (for these times) to another aunt: Laura Navarro Black, by going in person to her memorial.

My brothers will scold me on our family group chat for going out and potentially exposing family members that I live with to the deadly coronavirus. It’s not an argument either side expects to win, it just comes down to one’s appetite for risk and, in my case, knowing how careful I will be to wash my hands, wear my masks and stay distant from others. I’ll probably do an antigen test before going too.

This memorial is different because I know that my aunt had thought long and hard about her inevitable passage into spirit. She had prepared her heart and mind as much as she was able and had poured all her joy and love into her relationships. I know because I spoke to her about them for these pages, just a week before she tested positive and less than two before she breathed her last as I held her hand.

She had come close to death several years before and in the process of healing she had made peace with herself, her children, her husband, other family and friends. She told me she could die happy knowing that her children were going to be OK. I don’t think it was easy by any means, she would have wanted to meet her youngest apo, play some more with her 5-month-old granddaughter and roll her eyes and laugh with the rest of us. But she’s gone now and she made it so it’s easier for us to let her go.

Acceptance is the hardest part.



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