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