Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Coming Full Circle

Personal Testimony delivered at Greenhills Christian Fellowship on April 22, 2007

My husband and I lost our four year old son nine years ago in 1998. Migi, who was then four years old, passed away due to complications from an open heart surgery. The loss of a child is a pain too great for words.

Three months after his death, God blessed us with another son. Because I was recovering from childbirth, I stayed home most home the time to take care of our baby and another daughter who was then seven years old. Out of our family’s loss experience, the Lord brought forth a foundation called Migi’s Corner, a foundation that sets up play corners in government hospitals where children in the charity ward can go to play and read while recovering from illness or surgery.

In 1998, there were no workshops or support groups in the country that catered to bereaved parents like myself. Thus, I would find myself surfing the internet for hours, reading up on grief and recovery. Eventually, I went back to graduate school, took a course on bereavement studies and since 2001 have been teaching a course on grief at the Ateneo de Manila University.

GRIEFSHARE, GCF’s grief ministry was born out of that loss that my family experienced nine years ago. Sometime in June last year, my husband Hector and I approached Pastor RG Foncardas about the possibility of setting up a grief recovery program in GCF. Because we had received so much comfort from the Lord during our grief journey, our family wanted to be able to give back that same comfort to other people who had lost loved ones. And because we knew in our hearts that the Lord is the only one who can pull you out of the darkness that is grief, we wanted to share that with others who had been bereaved as well. The church was most supportive and gave their blessings to support the ministry. We had planned on an October launch for Griefshare.

On August 27 last year, I found myself hovering between life and death when it was discovered that I had an ectopic pregnancy. Thus, in the early morning of August 28, 2007 I had to undergo emergency surgery. Thus, even before Griefshare could begin, our family had experienced another loss.

I could not understand it back then and was searching for God’s message. Now I look back and think that perhaps it was another way to prepare us for the ministry we were about to undertake.

On November 2007, Griefshare was finally launched and our first module “graduated” 12 students who were in varying stages on the grief journey when they first came to attend Griefshare. From that initial batch we had seven bereaved parents, three widows, and two people who had lost either parent or sibling. It is not an easy ministry because it is one that demands you to be involved mind, heart and spirit into the lives of your participants. The greatest joy that my husband and I have found is in watching our participants burdens lift as they come to know the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and when they begin to process and understand their own grief.

The recovery is quite visible in marked in others. Initially they come with such heavy laden hearts and you see it in their eyes, their speech, the way they move, in their manner of dressing. Half--way through the 13-week program, you can see the load become lighter, the smiles return, and they slowly learn to laugh again. They start wearing brighter colored clothing, re-invest their lives in new activities, they learn how to pray and reflect, seek Bible studies and begin to truly trust the Lord once more. God truly gives grace for the healing.

Grief is a process that cannot be rushed and GRIEFSHARE does not guarantee that you will be completely healed from your losses after the 13-week program. When one experiences a death, it is like going through a tunnel, the downside is that it is dark but the upside is that there is a light at the end of it. GRIEFSHARE helps its participants begin walking through that tunnel, showing them what to expect while they are in the darkness and at the same time reminding them that there is nothing to be afraid of in the dark because God is there.

A GRIEFSHARE session is divided into two parts – in the first part, participants view a videos where U.S. grief experts who are Christians themselves talk about the healing journey – Dr. Larry Crabb, Dr. Bill Bright, Elizabeth Elliott, Kay Arthur, Barbara Johnson and participants who have been through the Griefshare workshops themselves. The second part is where we come together in a smaller support group to share what we have learned in the video and share what is going on in our own healing journeys. We always end our sessions with prayer and thanksgiving for what has transpired during that day.

If you know of someone, or you are someone who has lost a loved one through death, I urge you to join GRIEFSHARE and begin your journey towards healing and recovery. We meet here every Saturday afternoon from 2-5PM. Psalm 30 verse 5 says, “Weeping may last for a night, buy joy comes with the morning. Loss always takes place for a reason and pain can be transformative if you embrace it. The Lord has promised to one day turn your mourning into joy. To God be the glory. Thank you very much.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Nothing By Accident

The Lord always works in mysterious ways, HIS wonders to perform.

I remember reading this line back when I was 10 year old and wondered what it meant. Through the years, it has taken on a deeper meaning as I have seen it come alive in several circumstances in my own life and as I have seen it happen in the lives of others. I am a firm believer that nothing happens in this world by chance or accident. That there are no coincidences and that no one is ever just "lucky" but that when something fortunate or serendipitous takes place, it happened because God has allowed it to, for a purpose.

Last Saturday, my husband H and I began the second module of GRIEFSHARE last April 14, 2007 at the Greenhills Christian Fellowhsip Church in the Ortigas Business District. As a I looked over the partcipants in the room that afternoon, a sudden realization hit me, six out of the seven families there had lost a loved one through sudden death, five of them through a tragic accident. I could not help but feel for their losses but in the same breath, asked God to help us, to fill both H and I with the courage to minister to the lives that had been entrusted to us for that Griefshare module. Clearly, it was going to be a pretty heavy session.

GRIEFSHARE starts out by viewing a video where grief experts from the United States share their knowledge and comfort about the experience of loss. After the video and a short break, we break up into a discussion group and share with one another what we learned from the video. THe discussion becomes a support group of sorts where H and I, together with another facilitator help the participants navigate their grief journey. It was there, after hearing their stories that it was evident that 6 out of the 6 families (one had to leave earlier) had experienced losses ALL due to accidents. I am sure that this was meant to be by God. To lose a loved one in itself is also a great tragedy, but to lose someone so suddenly and through an accident, complicates the grief even further.

If you are reading this, please help us pray that those who are currently attending our GRIEFSHARE group be healed in God's time of their loss. Grief is a long journey but with prayers and support, in HIS time, it is always possible to move from a place of deep sadness into a place of hope. We are also beginning a teens group and most of our participants are healing from the loss of their sibling. Please include them in your prayer time too.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

From Mourning To Moving On

MANILA, Philippines - Next year, it will be 10 years since he died.
Does loss really become more bearable with the passage of time? How does loss transform you? It has taken me close to 10 years to find the answers to these questions, and the exercise continues to be a work in progress.Let me try to explain by telling you my story.

In 1998, my 4-year-old son Migi died of complications from open-heart surgery to repair a congenital heart defect. We were told that there was only a five percent chance of mortality, so my husband and I decided, after much prayer and discussion, to go through with the procedure. Twenty-four hours after surgery, Migi lay in a coma, never to awaken until he was called home to heaven in the early evening of June 3, 1998. A few days before his death, we had been told to expect the worst, some sort of forewarning or preparation. Nevertheless, when death comes, the pain still hits you with such full force and you are completely knocked out of your senses. In addition to this, at the time of Migi's death, I was six months pregnant with a third child.

Death changes you in ways you can never imagine. One has to walk the actual journey to understand the terrain of griefwork and mourning. People who have had no prior experience in losing someone they love, no matter how well-intentioned, will never understand the depth and breadth of the loss that you experience. And though pain is universal, every loss is unique. Two parents who have each lost a child may have similarities in the ways that they grieve, but each one's experience will be as unique as the relationship that the parent had with his or her child.
A widow's pain is not the same as that of someone who has lost a parent, a sibling or a child. Yet, all of them will go through a period of mourning and recovery.

Does one ever really recover from a loss? I prefer to say that eventually, one gets to move on and get on with the rest of one's life, but never really fully and completely recovers from it. If you are brave enough to completely embrace the pain of your loss and stay with it, then you can emerge a better and more com-passionate human being.

When you lose someone you love, there are only two ways you are changed, you either become bitter, or you become better. I opted to take the latter road.

But how do you get there, and when? There is no timetable for grieving. You can allow yourself to grieve for as long as necessary, so long as you do not harm yourself, or become harmful to others. Initially, there is a period where you just want to be by yourself and with your sadness. That is perfectly okay and acceptable. However, this period should not be extended unnecessarily, especially if other people depend on you for their existence - children, spouses, parents.

Everyone grieves a loss in a family, but in many different ways and degrees. Dr. Kathleen Gilbert, my professor in grief psychology at the University of Indiana, likes to say, "In one family, there may be one loss, but many griefs."

Acceptance and communication are essential to the healing process. You cannot move on if there is no acceptance. Says the February 2007 issue of the Journal of American Medical Association: "Acceptance was the most frequently experienced (positive) grief indicator, and yearning was the dominant negative grief indicator from one to 24 months postloss." Yearning for the loved one is the most difficult emotion that one will have to deal with, especially in the first two years after the death. Does it get better after the second year? Yes, slowly, painfully, but in time, it does.

What are some of the things I have found personally helpful in my own grief journey? First and foremost is prayer. I cannot begin to tell you the countless times I have gone down on my knees when the sadness became too difficult to bear and almost overwhelmed me. God's word and His faithfulness are what saw me and my family through all the dark nights of our souls. It is a comfort that we now give to other people who are bereaved, through a grief recovery program called Griefshare.

The second most helpful thing for me was to find a way to communicate my pain. Women are much better at this because when they grieve, there is a social element to it. We like to talk about our pain to anyone who will care to listen. Journaling is an exercise that both men and women can use to help alleviate the heaviness in their hearts. All you need is a pen and paper and a place where you can be alone with your thoughts. Write away your pain.

Third, and perhaps the most important tool, if you can call it that, was the act of reaching out to others who are also in pain. Born out of the experience of losing Migi was a project called Migi's Corner, a play area for pediatric patients situated in various government hospitals throughout the country. Another friend and bereaved mother, Noemi Dado, together with Alma Miclat, helped put up The Compassionate Friends, a monthly grief support group for bereaved parents. After her daughter's tragic death, Gina De Venecia set up the Ina Foundation that seeks to provide a shelter and counseling services for bereaved mothers. There are countless other foundations set up by people who have lost loved ones. I believe it is when we step out of the shadows of our own loss and pain and begin to truly reach out to others who walk the same path, that we truly heal.

This article was published in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, April 8, 2007