I was six years old when I first saw a body of a dead person. At the time, my parents worked at the town municipal office. My mom was the town librarian, and my dad, a town councilman in Hagonoy in the province of Bulacan in the Philippines. One afternoon, after my kindergarten class, I wandered around the building and ended up at the police station not too far from my library room. The dead body was of a young boy, lying on the concrete floor, covered with old newspaper, flies buzzing around the blood-stained pages. I felt pity for someone dying at such an early life and scared at the time, imagining how the boy’s spirit must be hovering over us while the curious crowd feasted their eyes on the spectacle.
Two years later, my grandmother died in our house due to some illness that I couldn’t quite understand up to this day. It was a toasty summer month of April, the time when most heart attacks occur due to extreme heat, I was told. My two siblings and I were in the house for our summer vacation, and my parents were at work when she passed away. Everything happened too fast, and I had no memory of what happened next, in the right order. I remembered crying very hard because I loved my grandma very much. She took care of me during the day when everyone was out to work or school. Some relatives and neighbors started to arrive. I had no idea how they found out. My sister and brother must have done something to inform them, in the middle of my wailing and running around the house. Shortly, my parents arrived. The embalmer arrived. The coffin arrived. Later in the day, part of our family room was instantly converted to a funeral home. Chairs and benches were set up in our front yard for guests who would be attending the wake. We were all dress
Last year’s pandemic showed many of our loved ones and people we knew the door to eternal rest. I knew of two close friends who did not survive even under the care of the best hospitals and doctors in town. Around me, there were lots more deaths caused by the pandemic or the chaos and violence preceding the election. Nothing could have prepared anyone for this unfortunate tragedy and how we would cope with the consequences. I was worried about catching the contagious virus. What if I already got it from the multiple business travels I recently took to Houston, The Hague, Bangalore, and Dubai before the lockdown? What if I was dying and didn’t even know about it? I was worried about my sick parents, who live in the Philippines. Not only did they have high risks due to underlying diseases, but this third-world country also could not possibly be better off than a first-world country, which was on the brink of a catastrophic institutional meltdown. What if they were dying and we didn’t even know about it?
My father recently passed away. He was sleeping when death took him away from us, on that early morning of October 2nd this year. He was battling with the final stages of prostate cancer. The recent five years or so saw him in and out of the hospital for surgeries, checkup and doctor visits. Perhaps my sister had a premonition about what might happen soon, she urged my brother and his family to visit my dad, who was staying with my sister, and stay overnight. My dad could no longer see, speak, move, or eat, all his bodily functions starting to shut down. His mind could still comprehend what was going on. And all that he could do was weep when he heard my brother’s voice. No words, only tears. Quiet solitude filled the air, and only the spirits could feel the solemn sadness.
Two weeks and a half later, my mother followed my father to eternal life. She just lost the will to live. Every day preceding her death, she looked for my father, who used to sit next to her every day. The person she used to lie in bed with at night had left a space that would never be filled anymore. Food and water didn’t matter to her. And her capacity for breathing oxygen diminished as the day went by until the afternoon of October 20th, when she took her last breath.
Two years earlier, seeing the worsening condition of my dad, my sister pleaded for me to come home to the Philippines and pay my last respects to him.
“He’s probably just waiting to see you before he takes his last breath,” she predicted.
“Ah, no way! Don’t say that. He’s still got a long way to go,” I denied.
And I was right. During my last visit, everything seemed okay but not great. I could definitely see the deterioration of his health, including my mom’s. But it was not his time yet. I held some great memories of that short visit, but my heart knew that death was inevitable soon. On my flight back to The Hague, where I was temporarily staying as an international expat, I was contemplating the worst thing that could ever happen: losing my parents. The thought of it involuntarily led to tears. I felt like a little child again; memories of pleasant childhood encounters with the younger versions of my parents came rushing in. Dad brought me pints of strawberries from his business travels (strawberries were rare and only grew in high altitude and cold temperatures in the Philippines). He took me to see my first movie in the public theater. He bought me books to read for the summer. When my mom said no, he would say yes. When I was in college, he would come to visit me at my university dormitory, take me out to dinner, and hand me an extra money allowance. Some said that I was the spitting image of my dad and sometimes his mom. My mom was equally generous and loving but had a temper of a monsoon. She would go out of her way to bring me whatever I wanted: clothes, shoes, food, all the comforts that she could afford, and lots of neighborhood gossips. She was a classic tiger mom who would not hesitate to swing her sharp blades when the situation called for them.
I tried to remember very hard how I felt when I lost my grandma when I was eight. I loved her so much that her passing away left me grieving for many months and years to come. It was so abrupt that I was not able to say a proper farewell. Worst, she didn’t get the chance to know my mature version and what I turned out to be. She only knew of that little child who sometimes would cause her lots of trouble: the child who almost burned down the kitchen, the child who broke the bathroom sink, the child she chased with her slippers deserving of some spanking.
Death is not something to be afraid of. It’s something you have to prepare for. I have fulfilled my mission in this life – my children are all doing well, and they all have their own families already.– my dad
Can anyone really prepare for the death of their loved ones? Depending on your relationship, cause of death, and your views of death and life, there are ways to cope and thrive in the face of losing the one you most care about. This process requires honesty and openness to enable you to sort out your thoughts and feelings and compartmentalize the rational and emotional sides of the same coin.
Condition your mind to accept the inevitable
Knowing that my dad had been sick with prostate cancer and type 2 diabetes slimmed down the possibility of sustaining a much longer life. At 86 years old, I thought he did pretty good already, compared to some people I knew who left so much younger than that. His doctor even told us that he’d exceeded the maximum predicted period for someone in the same condition. Wallowing in the valley of regret would not change his odds. While I strongly believe that there was nothing more we could have done given that he was already under the care of the best possible doctor and hospital available to him, I still could not help feel sadness and regret.
My sister was the wise one when she confirmed the obvious, “We’re all going to head in the same direction. It’s just a matter of who goes first. It’s a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.” Acceptance of the inevitable is the first step to understanding and embracing death. Death is a consequence of our biological existence. Cells age and die, and so do we.
Celebrate the end of worldly and physical sufferings
A few weeks before my dad passed away, he could no longer eat or drink. He had to be given juice instead of solid foods. Even then, the juice would come out again as he lost muscle control on his throat. Common to those with prostate cancer was noticeable blood in urine and bone metastases. He could no longer stand, sit or move on his own. With diabetes, he gradually lost his sight too. Ill or not ill, we do carry worldly burdens and physical impediments in our own way. All of these would go away upon death. My dad has been released from all the pain, literally and figuratively. As someone who loves him so much, I am glad to know that he is cleansed, comfortable, and whole again in his own way.
Applaud the life accomplished and the legacy left behind
It sounds counter-intuitive to hold a celebration party when somebody dies. You don’t need to hold a loud, vivacious party if that feels awkward. The point of view shifts from “what could have been” to “what has been accomplished”. My dad was a teacher and a writer in his much earlier years. He could speak and write in English, Filipino, Spanish, and Latin fluently. So when he retired, he spent some time writing about his life as a young man and later on as a town’s councilman. He came up with three books that he got compiled and bound as proper books, although only for the eyes of his family to enjoy. The stories spoke of his naughty nature as a young boy, sometimes skipping classes but always getting caught by his teachers, his marriage proposal to my mom, and his insider’s take on the dirty politics and scandals at the town’s council. Reflecting on his life, his successes, and accomplishments validated that he had a fruitful and happy life. He was known and will be remembered as a humble, humanitarian and loving person who would rather give than receive. Many years after he left public service as a councilor, people would still pay respects to him and continue to call him “konsehal” (councilor) and come to him for advice, sponsorship, and mentorship.
Celebrate the completion of life’s mission
One of the caregivers, Letty, who took great care of my dad, reached out to me and shared this conversation she had with him in mid-2019. This was right after he started to realize that the surgeries were not making him any better. Perhaps he was already suspecting of something worst. To avoid giving him further anxiety and stress, we never told him about his real condition. The C-word, however you say it, just felt like death already.
My dad declared one day, “Letty, I’m ready for our dear Lord to take me.”
“Don’t you want to reach your 100th with your wife? I heard that they are giving away one hundred thousand in cash,” she joked, trying to lighten up the conversation.
“I don’t want to go that far anymore. That’s still a long way to go – many more years of pain and suffering. One hundred thousand is not enough; it should be one million,” he quipped, returning the joke to her.
In his serious tone, he added, “Death is not something to be afraid of. It’s something you have to prepare for. I have fulfilled my mission in this life – my children are all doing well, and they all have their own families already.”
The simplicity of his remark was not only powerful and impactful, but he also helped set the record straight: “Hey, don’t worry about me. I’m done. I’m good.”
Release those pent-up emotions
Release those emotions – despite following the above-mentioned steps, there are moments that still make me burst into tears. When that happens, I sit and cry my heart out. I just let it go, so I could eventually replace sadness with the happy celebration of his life. I write in my journal. I wrote this article to articulate my feelings, thoughts, and learnings, so I could help others prepare, cope, and thrive when their moments come. Talking to friends and family helps too. Hearing their comforting words is reassuring me that I’m not left alone and still in good company with them. Professional counseling is another option to help properly frame the conversation that could lead to a breakthrough realization of what this all means. Whatever options you choose, the point is to release those emotions in the form and manner that is most comfortable for you. It’s okay not to be okay, and definitely normal to cry.
This whole experience renewed and strengthened my understanding of life’s most important tenets:
- We must love. We must love unconditionally. Don’t fail to show every day how much you love someone because today might be the last day.
- We must put our priorities in check. The stress at work is not worth it if it kills you. Worldly possessions cannot be taken to your grave anyway.
- We must take care of today’s wellness to avoid living in illness later on. My dad had some bad health habits too, when he was younger. Sometimes he knew, sometimes he didn’t know any better. The point is health should be the top priority. You have only one body to live in with no available spare parts.
- We must fulfill our life’s mission. My dad was clear about his mission. When you know your mission, you can set your path. And when you achieve it, then you know you have lived your life to the fullest, without regrets. Find the passion that leads you to your mission.
- We must enjoy life responsibly. “Life is short” is a cliche, but it has a profound meaning actually. You blink, and twenty years have passed. It doesn’t take long to consume life, but it is long enough to do everything you want to do. This requires having a list of what you want to do for yourself and others and carrying out your plan to completion.