OpinionResponding to grief

Responding to grief

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Life is short. That’s one cliché I’ve always heard before but never took seriously – until the recent, unexpected death of Dr. Leo Val Adalla, my best friend of almost 30 years.

It seemed like it was only yesterday when Leo told me that based on my post apropos of my research endeavors, I was becoming a revisionist historian.

He’d always joke about my profession, given the recent issues about historical revisionism and the Marcos’ end-goal of rewriting history to make them redolent to the credulous Filipinos.

He was indeed a guy I knew too well. And now it feels weird he’s not here anymore.

I belong to a group of friends who would proudly, without hesitation, claim we are a bunch of degenerates. We call ourselves Dalupapa Boys. The name actually originated way back when we were in high school, since we loved eating dalupapa (giant squid) on a stick, often sold at the Buglasan Festival. One of our friends loves it so much, he ate more than his stomach could handle, and learned his lesson after that. Still, eating dalupapa at the Buglasan was our yearly tradition.

Looking back to the times I was in high school through college, I never gave serious thought about death nor the possibility of losing a best friend. Afterall, I always thought, we were still young and carefree, without feeling any burden of adult responsibilities and existential angst. We felt indomitable. Like nothing else could go wrong. We were healthy, energetic, and were having the time of our lives.

But now, with the sudden death of a member of our tightly-knit group, it just seems like a harsh wake-up call, a reality check; like someone is telling us we are not getting any younger, or reminding us that we’re reaching our midlife — whatever that arbitrary term means. (I mean, how do we determine at what point is ‘midlife’ since no one really knows when we will die?)

Suffice it to say, losing a best friend feels almost the same as losing a family member. Yes, there is no doubt that losing a relative hurts, especially when you’ve known and lived with the person for years. But the death of a best friend appears to have more or less the same effect — as some people like me tend to consider close friends as family.

I’ve dealt with grief as a result of deaths of loved ones in a span of five years. The recent deaths — that of my Lolo Dads, Salvador Austria, in 2018 (eight  months before my wedding); the passing in 2019 of Mama Ne, Loreta Batiancila who was a close family friend (eight months after my wedding), and the passing in 2020 of our dear Dadan, Alberta Janine Flores-Lawas, who was like a mother to me and my wife Mako — proved to have a negative impact on my mental health.

Such deaths have caused a lot of mental struggles, anxiety attacks brought about by ‘illness anxiety’ which, according to my doctor, was a response to grief or my way of coping with losses of loved ones in the family.

It must be noted that by the year 2020 onwards was also pandemic time, so that, too, exacerbated the mental health issues I was going through.

It took me almost three years to get back on my feet. And I thought — I really did think — that 2023 is a good year for me. This was the year I stopped taking my medications, and started to feel better, mentally and physically. I thought this was it — although the intrusive thoughts would continue to linger intermittently, it was not as debilitating as it was years ago. I finally was able to help myself become better.

And then for some odd twist of fate, my best friend Leo  suddenly passed from a heart attack. He was 34.

To this day since Oct. 15, there are still so many questions in my mind, and it’s barely even a month since that tragic day. One of the things that continues to bother me is why we weren’t able to hang out the past  two months. The last time we met up was in the last week of August. Albeit we constantly communicated via Facebook Messenger, we never decided to go out for coffee or something.

Since then, I’d always just tell myself that we were simply busy with our own respective lives: I was busy finishing my research paper for a conference on national and local history; while Leo was busy with work as the medical doctor of the town of La Libertad while finalizing preparations for his planned wedding in April next year. The other Dalupapa Boys were also busy with their respective jobs.

I now remember reading somewhere that we really need to give some time to grieve, to confront its reality, to let it sink in. But we also need to give some time to refrain from being in grief all throughout. A combination of confrontation and avoidance would undoubtedly help a person come to terms with the loss.

There’s always that common saying that “Time heals all wounds”. This has become a meme for one of my best friends whose original composition starts with this line – and that the intensity and frequency of grief will somehow gradually fade away in time, but that is easier said than done.

My mother would always tell me that time heals; of course, I would agree but time may also – to varying extents – make it much harder for some people, especially those who were very close to the deceased. Imagine struggling with the feeling of yearning to turn back the time to possibly help the deceased loved one – that feeling of regret, the many what if’s.

And then later, you realize that you really cannot do anything about it as time and death are irreversible.  All that one can do is to grieve, and to hope that one day, you’ll be able to cope with the loss. But what are the stages of grief for losing a loved one?

In the field of psychology, albeit I don’t claim to be an expert (just a neurotic person who reads up on these things), the process of grief from losing a loved one is termed psycho-social transition. It starts with numbness, pining, disorganization and despair, and reorganization.

Numbness. As I’ve read, this first phase of grieving starts right after the moment of death, and would last for hours, or even days.

Pining. This is then followed by the second phase, when one experiences “intense feelings of pining for the lost person accompanied by intense anxiety”, according to Dr. Colin Murray Parkes, a psychiatrist.

Moreover, pining is characterized by a period of distress while the bereaved person continues to do normal day-to-day functions and responsibilities in an “apathetic and anxious way”. This is the part where anxiety and even depression kicks in.

Disorganization and despair. The third phase is when the bereaved person attempts to answer the many what ifs. As Dr. Parkes explains: “Many find themselves going over the events which led up to the loss again and again, as if, even now, they could find out what went wrong, and put it right.” This is also the time when there is a feeling of “physical” closeness with the deceased person – that sense that the deceased is just nearby/around.

Reorganization. It must be noted, however, that these stages of grief do not follow a rigid process – or that it should almost always be structured from the first stage to the last. Some people apparently go back and forth between the Pining, and Despair and Disorganization until they eventually reach this fourth stage.

However, it could take some years for a person to reach this last stage where he has enough mental fortitude to go on with his life. Dr. Parkes pointed out that most of the bereaved individuals would reach this stage usually two years after the death of their loved one.

I cannot speak for the family and other friends of my best friend who passed, but in my case, I’m still in an interminable loop between the Pining, and Despair and Disorganization. My anxiety has been acting up lately, and memories of best friend who I’ve known for around 30 years oftentimes  come and go. I find myself in the middle of work just looking back at the fun times we’ve had.

All the memories we took for granted simply because we thought nothing could go wrong. We were so used to the convenience of life – that our best friends or family members would always be around, then suddenly, you get hit by the reality that we are truly living on borrowed time.

One can only try to move on, taking it one day at a time, but it could take some years. There is no doubt that grief can take a toll on a person’s mental and even physical health – these are the detrimental responses to grief. But just hold on. This is also the part where living family members, friends, and medical doctors [if it worsens] come in to help out.

Do not be afraid to ask for help from them. If you feel vulnerable and weak, embrace it [don’t ignore or avoid the feeling], let it out if you feel like crying. Do not suppress your feelings. Remember, you are not alone in this.

Bereaved individuals always need support from people they trust. Inevitably, we all will be able to cope with the loss and, as Dr. Parkes averred: “In the end, most bereaved people come through the experience stronger and wiser than when they went into it.”

 

In memory of Dr. Leo Val Correos Adalla (July 15, 1989 – Oct. 15, 2023), a loving father and partner, a good son, a magnanimous doctor, and a fellow Dalupapa degenerate who was fond of (cleaning) cars, wrestling, fast WiFi routers, CCTVs, and many other things – appropriate or inappropriate – that I could not possibly enumerate.

 

__________________________________

Author’s email: JJAbulado@norsu.edu.ph

 

 

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