Reflections on Death and Dying

I lost my father on the 1st of November 1984. There are times when the grief is still fresh, but not as sharp as the pain of losing my mother when she died on the 15th of November 2009. I wanted to share with you what I’ve written on my diary on the 15th of January 2010, a couple of months after my mom passed on.

There is a universal truth that everyone is destined to die. Germaine de Stael, whose biography “Ten Years of Exile” I’ve read over two decades ago, said, “We understand death for the first time when he puts his hand upon whom we love.” It rang true, and reminded me of the several deaths I witnessed in my family while growing up and how it fostered an appreciation of life’s brevity and fragility. Both of my paternal and maternal grandparents passed on before I turned 12. Each death left a heartache that no one can heal and a memory that no one can steal. However, the loss of a parent is the transcendent reality of death. Two months ago I lost my mother. Twenty five years, three months and fifteen days ago, to be precise, I lost my father. Both events changed me forever. I am not the same person I was before my father died twenty five years ago…and I will never be that person again. Likewise, I am a different person since my mother passed a couple of months ago. Both feeling of loss is unbearably intense.

When my father died all I wanted to do was inveigh against the stigma of losing him at such a young age. For years following his death I pondered about life being so unfair. I was very angry. I was absolutely weary. I was deeply enraged at God for taking the life of my father at the unripe age of 51. He was at the prime of his life, I thought, and it was simply unfair for God to take him away from his young family. I was drained of having flashbacks of my father being sick and watching him deteriorate physically. I was exhausted and resentful for weeks, and months, and even years that followed.

My father suffered hugely before he died, and you’d think that would make it easier, knowing that his pain has ended. I was in high school, in my early teens, and watching my father in his deathbed was agonisingly terrifying. All my siblings were in college, living in the city, and it was just my mother and myself at home with my father for the last 2-3 months of his life. He had chosen to be brought back home from Manila when the doctors told him that there’s nothing much they can do for him. I am the youngest child and even with my mother, close relatives and friends, and even with household helpers around, I felt helpless and inadequate. I couldn’t take away my father’s pain. I wish I could have done more to ease his suffering. Carrying that huge emotional burden along with my mom having to face a lingering death is wretched beyond belief. The memories are not pleasant. No matter how much I try to contrive a tale of enthralling prose, I simply can’t. Over twenty five years had passed and yet, I simply can’t do it. To say that I don’t miss my father is a euphemism. A quarter of a century had passed and I still do miss him. To this very day. Just about everyday there is something that reminds me of my father. In fact, I miss him today more than I did yesterday.

His death has paved the way for a remarkable crossroad in my own life. Consequentially, I searched for truth. I mulled over the idea of the true meaning of life. I began to ruminate the nature of my existence. Reality is, life is simply inscrutable. It is utterly mysterious. Unlike other young people who resorted to drugs, sex, or got involved with gangster and other bad influence to conceal their emptiness, I resorted to reading….reading history and self-help books, and I also simply focused on school and extra curricular activities. That was my way of coping and trying to find meaning in life.

A quarter of a century had passed and I find myself in a similar circumstance. Watching my mother in her deathbed was just as heart-wrenching. When I lost her I asked myself, “Now what have I become?” “An orphan.” I lamented. There isn’t just a mother-sized gap in my life. In the last 25 years I also have that father-sized gap in my life. It feels as though my entire emotional web has disintegrated. A 40-year-old orphan is hardly the stuff of grand tragedy. Yet the feeling of bereavement is so intense that it’s virtually unbearable. I am sick at the thought of being an orphan. I am sick of goodbyes.

I’ve been through an upside-down string of sorrows . . . that I am not to write a novel. That I am human. That I am frail and fallible. That I miss my mom. That I can’t stand the thought of my mom lying in a box of dirt. That I shudder to think of her body decomposing. Pondering on the death of my mother makes me feel like someone being far out in the sea with no compass, no keel, no sail, no anchor. Who would have thought that something so predictable, the death of an old woman who had been diagnosed with terminal illness a couple years prior, could have such an obliterating effect?

And then I am reminded about the sermon preached. It was at her funeral service. When I am overcome by grief and everything around me seems lacklustre and faded, this sermon resonates more powerfully than ever. The sermon was based on Psalm 116:15, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” The preacher explained that there is a contradiction in this passage because how can death be precious? We hate death because in our limited understanding we only see death from this side of grave. And if there is something we can do to pull a loved one out of the grave then we would do it. But we can’t. He explained that her death is “precious” in God’s sight because she belongs to Him and death is part of the providential ordering of life and it is not a mistake in the mind of God. That the death of my mother is part of a greater plan for her life and He knows best since He owns her because not only He created her but He bought her by way of redemption. And that the joys of her birth could only be surpassed by the glory of her death; that although we are not privy to watch her take that flight to a heavenly country, we have this comfort – if death is precious in the sight of God, how much more would that mean to us?

Reflecting upon that message reminded me of something, that there is a place between two worlds, the physical and spiritual. I saw God’s love and grace in a split second of time when one breath ended and another one began. I have witnessed both my father and my mother took their last breath. I can tell you, it is a sacred space. It is full of peace. It is a mystical phenomena. Death has given me an entirely new perspective on life. Its brevity. Its fragility. Its enigma. Its abstruseness.

When I ponder on death sometimes it comes tranquil and marvellous . . . as it did for me tonight . . . as it did for my father and my mother in their final days. I am still struggling with the memory of those days. The death of a parent is not easy to accept. When a parent dies, your world seems to come to a gridlock. It goes shudder for a while. Your joie de vivre is lost. Your life is doleful and bereft of any vigour. It leaves you devoid of zeal for life indeterminately. But that doesn’t diminish the promise. The promise of after life. The promise of a joyful reunion in heaven. Even when death comes knocking at the door all frightful and loathsome, it’s still full of hope. Hope that one day I will be reunited with my loved ones who have gone before me. That I will one day be with my Creator.