Friday, September 21, 2007

Learning How To Mourn

My husband's Ninong Jamin passed away yesterday.

Standing amidst family and friends at the wake last night, I can't help but feel a little out of place. It's not because I'm treated any differently, in fact, I felt that everybody went out of their way to make me feel part of the family. But I still felt uncomfortable. I think its because I really don't know what to do. All around me, people were laughing and chatting and making jokes (like one particular classmate who kept asking why Ninong Jamin is always racing to the finish line), complaining about the air con, gossiping about dead people and their not so dead 'other' relations. Even my father-in-law (Ninong Jamin's only brother), seemed to be in good spirits, making small talk about politics and how his little girl (Corinne) was growing up.

Honestly, I didn't know how to react.

My experience with mourning, Filipino style, is horribly scarce. My parents didn't like attending wakes and funerals, and when they were forced to, they were loathed to bring me saying that they didn't want to traumatize me. As I grew up (theoretically more capable of taking whatever drama might take place), they still hesitated in taking me along, leaving me in the dark as to what actually takes place during those sorrowful gatherings. In fact, on my family's side, I've only attended one wake/funeral - that of my aunt, uncle and cousin (who died at that infamous Manor Hotel Tragedy) - and, believe it or not, even though we traveled all of eight hours to get to the province, I was only at the wake at most four hours.

In the case of my aunt, uncle and cousin, I knew that the reason was because my mother, strong as she was, couldn't take seeing the coffins. My mother's way of grieving came in spurts. When she found out about her sister's death, she cried for all of two minutes; but oh, what two minutes they were. She wailed and wept and screamed and fell to her knees, and for her daughter who rarely saw her as anything but strong, it was an eye opener. And then, after the two minutes, she was all right. Perfectly normal. Until we arrived at the place where we had to identify the bodies. Another two minutes of heart-wrenching sobs, until she just said, in a tone that could not be argued with, that she will not see the bodies. And then, again, she was fine. When we went up to the province to attend the wake, my father had to forcibly push her to the coffins so that she and all her siblings could have one last family picture (I know it sounds cruel, but at that time, it was important to the rest of the family to have that one last moment.), but even he could not take the physical manifestation of my mother's sorrow. And so just four hours into the wake (my mother spending most of those four hours outside the funeral parlor), we left and retired to one of the houses that was kindly lent to us for the duration of our stay.

Since I've married Alex, my experience with attending these wakes and funerals have gone up by more than 500%. Alex grew up, on the other hand, knowing it was polite (and required) to go to the wakes of of even friend's far relatives. And since his friends family was far more "cultured" than my family, one of the first surprises I had was that, 'nagpapakain pala sila'. Honestly, before that, I didn't know. But attending these wakes, I learned not only that they usually serve catered food, but they also provide giveaways, even a programme of activities where known choirs/singers performed. Comparing this to the rather traumatic first wake/funeral I've been too, it was a little overwhelming. And then, there was the 'grieving' part.

When I attended that one wake/funeral, it was easy to look sad and be quiet. And perhaps, because of the tragedy, everyone else was too. But with the recent ones I've attended, people tend to be happier, more at ease. It's almost like a mini-reunion. I don't know whether I should respond in the same way (and yet, it still feels inappropriate) or just smile, act like I'm part of the wall (as I've been doing). If I'm to take a cue from my husband, I would be all "social butterfly-ish" and go around chatting with people, which I can't actually do even if I had the gall to do it because I barely know anyone (On a side note, Alex too, apparently don't remember everybody's names, but that's my husband for you). And even then, do I even have the right to go around when, honestly, I'm not that close to the ones that have passed on?

And then, there's the what-do-I-say to people who are directly affected problem. Is saying 'condolence' Filipino style, sufficient? If I say a few pretty lines, would I be overstepping my bounds? If I don't, am I being too cold? With my mother, I knew exactly what to do, and more importantly, what not to do. But with these new influx of family that I care for who are suddenly affected by something like this, what do I say?

Even with my husband I don't know how to react. I remember waking early yesterday to my husband mumbling something. I would find out later that he was saying the rosary after finding out that Ninong Jamin's condition has taken a turn for the worse. I was barely conscious and he really didn't want to wake me, so he started praying by himself. But even if my body was sleepy, I knew something had gone wrong. We had visited Ninong Jamin the night before and knew his condition was not good. And so I tried to ask (clearly I thought) "What's wrong?", to which my husband did not reply, and I figured he didn't want to talk about it. Flash forward later that afternoon and my husband said the only thing he heard me say was "Grhghreh?", to which I of course insist, I was perfectly clear when I posed the question.

Funny anecdote aside, I don't know what to say to Alex. He seems fine, and just like my mother, he seems perfectly normal. But unlike my mother, I don't know what not to do. We talk about the same things, he doesn't seem sad (except at one point during the wake when we both were affected seeing Tita Malen wiping the holy water off the coffin with her hands so that she could see Ninong Jamin better), he acts as if everything is fine. But I know he was close to Ninong Jamin. I keep thinking that perhaps, because I'm not (I only met Ninong Jamin a few times before the hospital visit) that close, he can't really share his sadness with me. And then, another more cerebral part of me insists that, probably, just like the rest of his family, they grieve by acting normal and by praying and by having utter faith that Ninong Jamin and the rest that had gone ahead, are now happier wherever they are.

Maybe someday, I would learn the same.


Toni Alexis said...

My grammy just passed tragically and I am having the hardest time dealing with her death. It was tragic and blindsided me. Thanks for sharing this experience as it will help others xoxo

Kate said...

you're welcome. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I come from a Chinese family and we don't express stong emotions publicly. I have been to several funerals and I still can't cry or show my grief publicly, but privately I don't hold back. Even through grief we are bound by our cultural teachings, but we all feel the same emotions. Be strong and know you are loved.

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