Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Remembering My Son, 11 Years After

I still find myself smiling wistfully everytime I see a new dinosaur book on display at the bookstore. Part of me wants to grab the book, purchase it and bring it home to include it among your things that are kept in a cabinet close to my work desk at home.

Eleven years later, I don't cry as much and I can talk about you now without having to shed a tear, remembering you with smiles more than with sadness. You must be a young man now, all of 15 years old. When I see Cholo who lives across the street from Mama, it's like I see you because you were both born on the same year. I wonder if you still love dinosaurs. I'd like to believe that you do.

I guess you know (and you see clearly from where you are...) that so much has happenned to our family over the last 11 years. How we all have grown individually, hopefully for the better :) Your sister is now about to enter college but she still remembers you and misses you like crazy. She's become one hell of a photographer and I see a lot of you in her very artistic work. She's going to be a doctor someday, and I know that has been influenced greatly by her experience of you.

You see, no matter how many years have gone by, you continue to live on in each one of us. This year we came out with a book that celebrated your memory. "Heaven's Butterfly" has helped countless children, not just here, but overseas as well. Your legacy continues to expand and evolve and though we would have wanted for you to remain with us, I have now begun to see the higher purpose as to why you had to leave us after four years. God's ways are not our ways. Losing you continues to be the most painful experience I have ever gone through but the pain has somehow eased because I am able to share the memory of you in so many ways. There is Migi's Corner, the grief education classes, Griefshare, the book, the kids Good Grief workshops... your loss has not been in vain. Your life continues in every child whose life has been touched by the corners or the stories about you that we have shared. God has truly been faithful.

For the last decade or so, since you've been gone, I've had this strange fascination for the monarch butterfly who every winter flies to the coast of California (specifically in Pacific Grove) to cluster in select groves of eucalyptus and pine where they spend the rest of the winter, snug and safe with other monarchs. Dad and I finally made it there in 2006 and we marveled at the beauty and resiliency of these orange and black winged creatures. It was only a few weeks ago when I read about them and suddenly it all made sense... this fascination for monarchs that I;ve held since you left us. Diane Ackerman writes in "The Rarest of the Rare" --- "They are silent, beautiful, fragils; they are harmless and clean; they are determined; they are graceful...Like the imagination, they dart from one sunlit spot to another. To the Mexicans who call them las palomas, they are the souls of children who died during the past year, fluttering on their way to heaven."

We love you Migs and we miss you. And we will always be connected to those we love no matter the time that has passed. We keep you in our hearts, forever.

Image from "The Dinosaur Day"

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Helping Children Grieve

He seems okay on the surface. He or she has high grades, continues to play, and does not exhibit any outward manifestations of sadness. Children grieve differently than adults and so we often mistakenly assume that everything is okay and they aren't grieving at all.

A child's grief is masked because it looks differently than what we are used to seeing in adults and older kids. Kids grieve in small pieces at a time. They can't take the full force of the loss all at once. Their grieving is very inefficient. They approach it, feel it, take it in, and then go off and play something totally different. They'll come back again for another dose of grieving when they're ready.

I remember very clearly to this day how it was for me when my dad died. I was 16 years old, in the summer entering my senior year of high school. He died in April and we returned to school in June. My life went on, seemingly as normal as possible. I grew up 10 years that summer -- 16 going on 26 and my brother was 10. The year ran and then one evening, nine months after my father had died, while writing and my mother began to panic because I seemed inconsolable. So she took me for a ride around our village, let me cry it all out in the car. We talked about my dad for the first time in nine months. I had never brought the subject up for fear of upsetting her. Little did I know that bottling it all inside was so very unhealthy for my 17-year old psyche.

And in the years that followed, I continued to remember him. Through graduations, and weddings, and family milestones. Twenty-eight years later I continue to remember him so well. It never really goes away. When you lose a parent between the ages of seven and seventeen, at a critival developmental stage in your life, it just becomes a part of you forever. And this is why I have started to do Good Grief -- I draw from the experience of a childhood loss but this time I apply the tools I have learned in grief therapy to help make the road for other grieving children a much better one than the one I had to navigate 28 years ago.

Just because a child is playing doesn't mean that he or she is not grieving. Play IS a child's work. Often, adults will see kids at play and think "That death must not have made much impact because they're just going right on playing." They're grieving, but in their own way. The relative quickness with which a child moves in and out of her expression of grief, often belies the intensity of her feelings.

When a child experiences the death of a family member, "there is a great deal happening under the surface," according to Dr. John Baker, a child psychologist swho specializes in bereavement issues at Harvard Medical School. "And if they have to," he continues, "they will keep it down inside, locked up." The child appears to be doing well. But appearances here can be deceptive.

In his book Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies, J. William Worden reported that the Harvard Child Bereavement Study found many children are more at risk for emotional and behavioral difficulties two years after a death than they were immediately after or at one year after the death. More children feel fearful or anxious a year after the death than right away. And, two years after the death, many bereaved children reported significantly lower self-worth than nonbereaved children.

Every child needs to have a safe place where he or she can express their grief and this is what we hope to achieve with our Good Grief workshops. My daughter says it was so important for her back in 1998 to have found someone with a similar loss because after her brother, Migi died, she felt like the odd one out. In a workshop or support group, other children are able to meet and socialize with other kids who have experienced a similar pain, making them feel less alone, helping them find the confidence in knowing that they are not alone in their experiences.

Good Grief, a play and support group to help grieving children heal through storytelling, art, games and journalling activities, will be held on MAY 22, 2009 from 9:30 to 12noon in Makati. If you know of children (ages 6-12) who would benefit from attending this group, please email me at cathybabao@gmail.com to reserve a slot. Class size will be limited.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

When Grief Comes Full Circle

“There are two ways to live; one is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is.” - Albert Einstein

San Francisco, California --- Sometimes you never know where the road leads.

I’ve been in the U.S. for the last two weeks, primarily, to attend a conference on death and bereavement and take grief therapy classes in Dallas, Texas and now, I have found my way to San Francisco.

While here, I did a mini-book tour of “Heaven’s Butterfly” and read to a total of more or less two hundred Fil-Am, African-American and Hispanic children in a few schools in San Francisco. The experience, both moving and healing, affirmed how pain and loss are universal and knows no color, race or creed.

I was blessed by the children’s reaction to the story, touched by their sad and innocent faces and at the same time happy to see them fully engaged. The book, re-tells the story of the first year of our lives after my 4-year old son Miguel, or Migi died in 1998, narrated from my then 7-year olf daughter’s point of view.

At the Bessie Carmichael Elementary School also called the Filipino Education Center in downtown San Francisco, the children opened up about their own losses after hearing the story. Many of them had lost grandparents, siblings, good friends, and a few parents. The children were eager to ask questions after the storytelling. They wanted to know how I felt when Migi died, asked me if I still cried, or if I thought about him to this day and what I missed most. These queries came from children whose ages ranged from 6 to 10 years old. It was an amazing morning, and also, the anniversary of a childhood loss -- the sudden death of my father from a heart attack at age 49, 28 years ago. It was very healing for me to be telling the story that day and being in the midst of those children.

I spent a better part of the afternoon of that day, talking about the mid-life journey with a friend while watching boats navigate the beautiful San Francisco bay. We talked about how difficult some of the last years had been and how a lot of pruning and discernment were done for the self, in one’s career, relationships and friendships. I shared one of the biggest realizations I’ve had when relationships end in the mid-life years -- “It’s not about whether you are good or bad. You simply become different people.” When a friendship dies, leave no room for rancor or regret, and instead be thankful for what was and move on, keeping yourself open to the possibilities of new experiences, relationships and blessings. There have been many unexpected gifts that have been given to me at this point in my life.

The next day, I again read “Heaven’s Butterfly” this time, to the children at the St. Charles Catholic school in the Mission district of San Francisco, and was once more humbled by the sharing of their own stories of loss. Children, store within them deep wells of strength and resilience, and if we give them the opportunities to draw from those wells, they are able to process and heal in a healthy manner. At the last class where I spoke, a nine year old Hispanic boy shyly raised his hand to say that he could identify with the story because he had lost an older brother three years ago to a drive-by shooting. I asked the young boy what his name was, and when he said, “Miguel”, I didn’t quite know how to react and felt a lump form in my throat. I gave him a copy of the book and was rewarded with a smile and a very gracious thank you.

Today, I went to Yosemite National Park where because of its majesty, one immediately realizes how small one is in the grand scheme of things. On the way there, we stopped in a little town called Mariposa, which, serendipitously, is Spanish, for butterfly. I went into a shop to look at some stones that I could use for some activities in grief therapy. At the end of my visit, as I was paying for my purchase, the owner, an American Indian lady with wise eyes, gave me a knowing look and pressed some green colored stones into my pal,m.“These will help you remember the road you have been on, to take from it what is good, to help you in whatever it is you want to accomplish in the future.”

Truly, this trip has made me realize that there is no death because love lives on forever. We carry in our hearts, the memories and footprints of all our loved ones who have gone ahead of us. Like the circumstances of our lives, and the way we choose to respond to them, they shape us, and help steer the course for the journey that lies ahead.

I will be conducting, Good Grief! A workshop and playgroup for children ages 7-10 who have lost loved ones through death, on Saturday, May 22 from 9:30-12noon. To reserve a slot, please call Pia at 994-7672 or email griefisajourney@gmail.com

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Aftermath of Losing Amiel Alcantara

ADDENDUM: It is also important for the children of Theresa Torres to get the help that they need and we pray that the family recognizes and realizes this. It may be in their best interest to be moved to a different school or city lest they be crucified by less kinder members of the community. They are children and need to be protected too.

Many parents have come forwarded and written about their own horror stories in their respective schools parking lots. If you have a story to share, please send your details to cathybabao@gmail.com We shall keep it private but as a community, we also have a responsibility to all our children to do everything that we can to keep them safe when they are away from us.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fly High! Bidding Amiel Good-bye

Even grown men cry.

At 11:30 AM today, the Chapel of the Holy Angels at the Ateneo de Manila University Grade School was filled to the rafters as members of his family, friends and the school community bid Amiel Alcantara good-bye in a mass that was concelebrated by university president, Fr. Ben Nebres, and Fr. Kit Bautista, grade school headmaster.

In a tribute to his youngest brother, Avie Alcantara said that Amiel had wanted to achieve three things in life -- "to be an Eagle scout, a soldier and to be legendary." By dying early, Avie said, he managed to achieve two -- now he is a soldier of God and in a manner of speaking, has become legendary. "I know understand why he seemed to be more advanced than me even if I was older than him. Why he used hair gel at an early age, why he had a celphone and I didn't, why he used Axe deo cologne and why he was so adept at YM. I guess it was because he was going to leave us early."

Avie's talk was followed by a beautiful, moving five-minute video tribute made by his uncle, set to the song "Gone Too Soon". At this point, there was no dry eye in the entire church, including mine.

Pepe Alcantara gave the response on behalf of the family and in his message he made some salient and very insightful points --

For his son Amiel he said -- "Forgive me for not being there with you. I would have wanted to be there, to hold you, to protect you." Pepe recalled tearfully how at 6:45 AM on the day that Amiel died he had wondered why after their family van had backed out of the driveway, Amiel asked the driver to stop and he got off, rushed to Pepe and gave him a tight hug. "It was unusual for him to do that. Now I understand why," Pepe said, his voice breaking. "It was a day", he narrated, "that began with the tight hug of a much beloved son and ended with him inside a coffin." The lesson here, he says, is that when someone hugs you, makes sure you hug the person back and that yoiu do it well because you'll never know if it will be your last." He then shared with the crowd how, on the second day of the wake, a third grade student approached him and gave him an envelope, "I need to return this to you..." the young boy said. And when Pepe asked him what was inside, the boy told him that there was 111 pesos inside -- Amiel had been giving him money to supplement his allowance because he lived all the way and had to travel from Cavite. Amiel, was truly selfless even at such a young age.

Pepe then spoke about his family and how he saluted his son Avie for his courgaeous act of pulling Amiel out of the wreck that tragic Tuesday morning. He thanked Yaya Tata for saving Avie and daughter Jana from harm and in the process putting herself in harm's way instead. "Tata has been with us for 40 years, she was Melanie's yaya and is a second mom to my children. We are forever grateful to her."

Lastly, Pepe spoke to the community, asking them to be more protective of "the seeds in this community." He asked them -- "How can we regenerate, or even begin the process of regeneration if you are unable to protect the seeds that you have here." "Magpakatotoo tayo," he said solemnly, "How can regeneration happen if a child cannot even finish his sandwich..." and his vboice trailed off.

He spoke to Amiel's classmates from 4-Manobo-- "Amiel will be your angel, but I am sure he will not haunt you," he said in jest. "You will always be with us, every moment of every single day," he finished as he threw a sad gaze at where Amiel lay.

The morning's mass was ended with a beautiful release of blue and white balloons, an act that gave momentary joy as each member of Amiel's class released a balloon withg a message attached to it. The balloons were emblazoned with "Fly high Amiel" - a line that holds special meaning to anyone who has ever spent time as a student at the Ateneo. The balloons were released by Amiel's Grade 4 classmates and family members at the hearse slowly made its way to through the grade school driveway.

Fly high, Amiel. Fly heavenward, back to your real Home. As Avie Alcantara put it so beautifully, "In God we trust. In God, Amiel, we entrust."