Manila — Death happens — if not to someone we know — to us. The only problem we have with it is how we pass its test on our level of strength, on how we accept it. It challenges us on how we continue living without the persons we used to love and live with. The most terrifying reality is if it stares us in the face.
The certainty of death is not as ominous as it is today, with a lethal virus stalking all of us. The global number of coronavirus deaths is now at more than a million.
In the Philippines, I try not to look at the tallies anymore, but when it’s inevitable, I look at them with sadness. Most of these persons died without anyone by their side, intubated or attached to drips and machines. After death, they are cremated, as per new health policies. I also stopped reading stories such as how a daughter received her father’s ashes without even seeing him since his confinement.
How and why we die is a human circumstance we will never fathom. For those of us who are left behind, we deal with loss in our own ways; most of us even distance ourselves from grief, even if others say we should face sorrow and process it so we can move on.
In many different cultures, deaths, funerals and burials are reinvented to ease the pain of death. I remember years ago while on a visit to my parents’ graves prior to All Saints Day, a funeral procession for a dead man had the song “Dance with my Father” playing from the hearse, with the people holding white balloons swaying to it.
As a member of an advocacy organization promoting HIV prevention and compassion for people with HIV, I have been to a number of wakes of persons who have passed on from AIDS-related deaths, a few of them by suicide. Their tragic deaths were eased by beautiful prayers and the ritual of donning red ribbons, the global symbol of support for persons living with HIV and in remembrance of those who have died.
Having lived in a Buddhist country, I’ve also participated in the bathing of the deceased, whose ankles and wrists are tied with a white string, with the belief that he or she will have a safe passage to the next life. Every time I recall this experience, I remember the chanting of monks. They remind me of the crying and wailing of old women during the wake of my grandparents when I was a child. I wanted the chants and cries to lull me to be dead to the world, but they kept me awake because they were more unsettling than comforting.
Of course, there’s always Halloween, which in many countries is a celebration dedicated to remembering the dead. We never had Halloweens as children. Our versions of Halloween were gathering at night under a full moon, swapping scary tales and anecdotes but screaming and scampering away when we’re too scared and overwhelmed from our own stories. The grownups would yell at us for being noisy then tell us to go home and sleep.
This year has given us a lot of burden to even remember our dead, but we’re still going strong. I’m sure someone came to a virtual Halloween party dressed as the coronavirus. Apart from the red ribbon, we have the pink ones, but I don’t know what will come out as our rites and symbols to remember the year 2020. I just continue hoping that we will all make it to 2021.