It was past 9:30 at night when my cellphone rang. No one ever really calls me that late, unless...Unless.
I looked at the caller I.D. and saw that it's an overseas call. It's my brother.
It took a while before I heard him speak, and when I did, I could hear his voice quivering, sounding lost and resigned.
"Mommy Rita's gone", he said in Filipino.
I felt confused. I heard him and understood exactly what he meant, but everything in my body and half of my brain rejected his news and simply didn't understand. Or didn't want to understand.
Mommy Rita is, or was, my last surviving grandparent. She's the one I wrote about five years ago because I was trying to come to terms with her worsening dementia, and the same one I mentioned in my essay last week. A few days ago, mid-morning of September 30, she died. She was 88.
That I am heartbroken is not a secret; and that she died very peacefully and painlessly, though something my family and I are all very grateful for, doesn't change the fact that she left an emptiness that I know will linger on.
But this is neither a eulogy, nor a public outpouring of my grief. Instead, this is to share my realization that, for migrants such as myself, the grieving process looks a little bit different and possibly more complicated compared to the grief of people who are in close proximity to their families.
For someone like me whose immediate family resides in another country, every late phone call can potentially stop you in your tracks and could make you utter every prayer imaginable even before you pick up the phone. You know that it can only be a real emergency, and the only questions left for you to ask are "Who is it now?" and "What happened?".
Image by: Keith Kristoffer Bacongco
A family emergency for me will always spell out a dilemma and won't always be as straightforward as you might expect given 'normal' situations. For migrants like myself, it will always be a weighing of options as we ask ourselves, "Should I buy a plane ticket now and take the soonest flight out to go home?" And I'm not talking about a cheap, short flight either. In my situation, it would likely cost, on average, a thousand US dollars, for roughly a 22-hour flight.
But to be honest, it's not so much the cost I'm worried about. It's the idea of being stuck in an airplane, most likely by myself (as it would be too complicated and expensive to expect my son and husband to drop everything and accompany me), and start the grieving in my head during that 22-hour flight.
So, really, it is not uncommon for migrants like me, who, for one reason or another, never make it back home to be with our loved ones and pay our last respects. We often miss out on the rituals needed that serve the purpose of easing the grieving process somehow. When a loved one dies, the living find comfort in the telling and re-telling of their memories of the deceased with those who they share common memories with. It is through this ritual that the living find comfort and acceptance that though our loved one will no longer be physically present, it is still up to us to keep them alive in more intimate ways. Engaging in the final rites for the dead, which also serves as a rite of passage and process of closure for the living, are things migrants like myself find ourselves doing away with, often times decided on rationally though not necessarily willingly.
I did not write this so you would feel sorry for me. After all, to live so far away from 'home' is a choice I continue to make.
I wrote this to give a voice to people like myself who often times suffer the stigma or judgement by others who assume that going home when a loved one dies is an easy and automatic decision; that failure to show up and pay our last respects are signs that we love less, feel less and that our decision is borne out of sheer selfishness.
Grief is very personal and it is unfair to judge others' based on how you are acquainted with yours. We all do what we can with what we are given. Sometimes a long trip back home might be doable, but sometimes we might just have to make do with phone calls, letters and a long, quiet cry at night. Which ever one it is, our grief is ours alone, and by no means should one's outward expression of it be a measure of the depth of love and sense of loss felt for the one who has departed.
Goodbye for now, Mommy Ritz. 'Till we see each other again...XOXO