“What do we talk about?” I knew this was a pivotal moment, but I didn't yet understand my role.
These thoughts came to me as we sat on the porch of a little concrete block home in the Philippines. This pivotal moment involved a coffin just a few feet away containing the body of the family’s 53-year-old father. He had died suddenly of a heart attack a few days before.
Tragedy Can Strike At Any Time
We had come to the small village of Humayao in Cavite near Manila to visit three children whom we had been sponsoring for several years through Partners International.
The porch we were sitting on was the porch of the family of Joriz Santos, the boy we had been sponsoring the longest. This was the same boy Caroline and Justin had visited three years ago. When we first heard about the tragedy, we emailed Joriz’s mom, Maricela, and asked if perhaps this wasn’t the best time for us to visit.
She responded with sweet words saying that it would be a greater sadness for them if we did not visit after we had come so far. They invited us into their tragic pivotal moment. So here we were, five chairs for our five family members and a sixth for Maricela. We sat in the little entry porch in the heat of the day. The casket stood inside the door. Many extended family members, old and young, gathered around to pay their respects and support the family.
It was a strange thing to meet the eye of a new acquaintance, see the sadness there, but also a smile behind the pain. Joriz, like Justin, had grown a lot since the last time the two of them had been together. After expressing our condolences, we sat, awkwardly at first. But slowly the awkwardness melted away and conversation began to flow more freely.
We talked of our life in China, of the Santos children, of father Danilo, of kids’ job aspirations. We also spoke of heaven and of the connection we felt because of the Spirit of God.
As time went on, Justin and Joriz stood a little apart from us and conversed while we took some photos and watched the many children play. Erika met her sponsored child, 11-year-old Costanza. Luke found the dogs and chickens captivating. We all learned about a variety of Filipino plants around the house. Some women served us “ginataang halo-halo,” a hot sweet mixture containing yam, ube (a type of root), and cassava.
Some Thoughts While Paying Respects
After a time, all five of us went in to pay our respects to Danilo. We had given our children, then 14, 12 and 8, the option of staying outside. But all of them joined us. This was a pivotal moment in each of their young lives.
We stood before the open casket and looked at Danilo's body, then looked at the large photo of him in life that stood above the casket.
Not being used to open-casket wakes, we weren’t sure how any of us would feel about this.
As I looked at Danilo, I thought how a dead body is truly just a container. The Danilo I could see in the photo was truly not there.
I also realized that it is a valuable thing to look on the dead body of a loved one. It gives the opportunity to say goodbye. It confirms the fact that the loved one is no longer there. The spirit has gone elsewhere.
Having experienced the passing of my own father a few years earlier, I felt a connection with Danilo and Maricela’s children. When dad died, I had thought I didn’t need to see his body. But now, I wonder if it would have been good for me.
The Power Of Community
I also appreciate the way that, in Filipino culture, the community surrounds the grieving family. In America, we tend to give a grieving family space and then go to the funeral to pay our respects. Having so many people, young and old, surrounding you is a tangible cushion of love. It is so powerful!
The sudden passing of Danilo was a shock to all of us. For the Santos family who live, like so many in the Philippines, at the edge of poverty, it meant increased struggle.
Maricela, however, is blessed to have five beautiful and intelligent children. They will help her as she ages. I wish this family had been spared this grief, but pain draws people closer. It has created a bond between our families that will not easily break.
How does your culture deal with death? In what ways does the community support the family of the deceased?