Grief and “small monuments”

mae-sta-ana copyWe remember the dead. The nation commemorates the anniversaries of fallen heroes. But what about honoring the unsung multitude? In our predominantly Christian society, collective remembrance happens on All Saints’ Day and its extension, All Souls’ Day.

Giving tribute to the dead is part of grieving. It is said that grief arising from the loss of a loved one is permanent. Only the intensity varies over time. The act of remembering and processing grief is the most intense and complicated in the aftermath of death.

My beloved wife Mae passed two months ago. She had diabetes, a most vicious disease that progressively debilitated her vital organs. Her weakened immune system made her vulnerable to various infections. In the end, pneumonia led to cardiac arrest. Hers was a sudden but peaceful death.

The emotional pain is fresh, and I weep daily. Vir, a college friend and now widower, told me that it took him eight long years to return to normal life, even as he continues to grieve. He surmises that the length of being miserable is related to the depth of his guilt feeling.

Part of my deep anguish is the feeling that I could have done something different, something better for Mae. Not that Mae was forlorn; she was in fact radiant, smiling, forgiving. She kept singing, she attended social gatherings and reached out to people, and she frequently visited Belle, her bubbly niece who gave her much joy and inspiration. As a married couple, we had attained the state of full love. Still, I cannot vanish the thought that we could have further improved our relationship and her quality of life.

Stella, Mae’s childhood friend whose husband died six years ago, gave me a frank piece of advice: “We have to face the reality that they (my Mae and her Jay) are not coming back anymore. It’s painful but that’s the truth. They know (present tense) that we love them and that we did our best to take care of them. We have to move on s…l…o…w…l…y, one step at a time.”

One can move on by continuing to remember one’s departed love. It helps to recall the positive although reviving the memory of happy moments likewise makes one cry. Those who know Mae describe her as kind and empathetic, intelligent and articulate, friendly and chatty, beautiful and endearing. She had a natural gift for writing and singing. She was an emotive poet. She was one of the best editors and my editor. For all her great attributes, she had a complicated life, which could be understood only by deeply exploring her inner qualities and experiences.

It is unavoidable that private grief is communicated to the public. Commemorating the life of the deceased involves sharing the lessons and reflections.

We can gain many insights from Mae’s life, but to be brief, I address the three most important things.

1. In the physical world, relationships are most important. Relationships are universal. They include nations, races, classes, clans and institutions like family. But without doubt, the most palpable, the most special–the one with the greatest personal impact–is the relationship with one’s love.

Our marriage had its twists and turns, but we strove to propel it forward. And Mae was the main driver. At the outset, she took utmost effort to deepen and strengthen our relationship.

A wedding present we received, one which Mae valued most, was a paperback about the marriage map. I can no longer recall the book’s title. But I am pretty certain that the stages of married life include honeymoon, reality check and adjustments, uncertainty, separation (not necessarily divorce or annulment; it can be husband and wife sleeping on different beds), acceptance, and recognition of full love.

Mae read the book again and again. She wanted me to engage her on the issues. She heavily marked and annotated the book, in which its pages became dog-eared.

Being husband and wife is being close friends. But Mae would complain that I treated my friendship with her, no matter how special, as no different from how I related with others.

We had fights, small and big, petty and serious. But not even the biggest threats broke up our marriage. On the contrary, conflicts, despite momentary setbacks, served to strengthen our marriage.

Mae desired a deep, intense relationship, which not only applied to the two of us. She also expressed intense feelings towards her closest friends, which resulted in joy or sadness, fulfillment or frustration.

She had hundreds of friends, and they were not merely Facebook friends. Her friends included her relatives, neighbors and classmates; the young and old; the poor and the rich; the religious and the agnostics; the conservatives and revolutionaries; the straights and the gays; and so on. Her love for people was expressed not in the grand ways but in little acts of kindness and generosity.

2. Spirituality is essential in the material world. Being spiritual is conventionally associated with religion and prayers. Mae was indeed a prayerful person. She offered prayers to friends and others. Her prayers were not reduced to recitations; they were sincere. Mae understood that spirituality was not about observing traditional religious practices. She always found time for reflection and discernment, for affirming what is moral and good, and expressed her thoughts and feelings in writing.

Mae had differences with the Church on some temporal issues like reproductive health and gay rights. She learned from her mom, the greatly loved Cil Manalang, that what matters most in the Church’s teachings are its core values, including faith, the dignity of the person, the love for family and community, the option and solidarity for the poor and the oppressed. That Pope Francis’s progressive teachings have gained ascendancy made Mae closer to the institutional Church.

Mae’s wish was to close the spiritual and the emotional deficit in our relationship. My realization came late, which I regret. Mae’s passing, nonetheless, has changed me. To which family friend Vida said: “Mae is happy with your newfound level of spirituality.”

3. Self-esteem is necessary not only for one’s happiness but also for one’s relationships to prosper.
Mae was emotionally scarred in her childhood, but which her family and close friends were not privy to. Furthermore, she lost her dad Ernesto (she was her dad’s favorite child) when she was a fragile seven years old.

She described herself as having “partly broken wings.” Such condition resulted in the diminution of self-respect. She went through bouts of depression.

The process of healing was long and difficult. She wrestled with her demons and summoned the support of those who empathized with her. She ultimately overcame her loss of self-esteem. After all, she was a Manalang and daughter of Cil—known for being meritorious, dignified, and confident.

In summary, Mae observed the Church’s most important commandments. “Love God, and after God, love thy neighbor as thyself.” For a long time, Mae dismissed the part of “thyself.” But gradually, she regained self-worth. Some of her last words to me were: “Don’t worry. Don’t cry.” And when I said to her “[I] love you,” her response, but addressed mainly to herself, was “Love me.” That was an affirmation of “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In a presentation done by Andrew George titled “Right, before I die,” one dying woman named Kim said: “First you must learn to love yourself, only then can you truly love others.”

In the same presentation portraying “men and women who face impending death and do so with acceptance and peace,” a statement from Irene struck a chord with me:

“We will leave very few traces. Our monuments are shockingly small but all the more genuine and heartbreaking for being so. We can count ourselves lucky for living on in the hearts of a few for a half decade or so.”
I hope Mae’s “small monuments” can touch the lives of a few for their betterment and for a better world.

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