Profound loss and grief when a loved one dies: The agony of living away from the motherland

MALIGAYANG PASKO.

This Christmas will be bittersweet for our family as we just lost one very important pillar on my husband’s side of the family. My father-in-law was called back to heaven on December 5 — just when Advent has just started. He was 86.

I know many of you who have mourned the passing of a loved one in the Philippines will be able to relate to and understand the profound grief I am writing about.

My father-in-law Manolo Relos had a heart attack and then a stroke and pneumonia all in one week. My husband, being the doctor in the family, had been guiding my in-laws, including his two siblings also living in America, through FaceTime in explaining to them the treatment options, particularly the angioplasty to remove the blockage in the heart and later, the thoracentesis that would remove the water in his chest cavity to make him breathe better.

Unfortunately, two days after the procedure, we were told he would just sleep and not be responsive at all. Our hearts skipped a beat and were worried he might slip into a coma or just die and we were all thousands of miles and an ocean away. My husband, my brother-in-law in Portland, and sister-in-law in Boston all agreed it was time to go home.

I was supposed to host “Global Pinoy Idol” for The Filipino Channel and DZMM in Las Vegas the following week but I made the decision to be there for my husband and my in-laws during this most uncertain and difficult time. Hard as it might be to back out from a job I love to do, cognizant of the fact that my role in the show had been widely advertised and promoted, I knew in my heart I had to go home and help ease the burden of my husband and his family. Family would always come first for me.

For the first time in 13 years, all five children of Manolo and Norma Relos were together again with their parents. Miraculously, my father-in-law woke up, and had been responsive and started talking again. He was so happy to see us all together by his bedside in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the hospital. 

My father-in-law said, “wala nang kulang sa mga kaboodle”. “ I feel we are really one family.”

In the ICU, he was surrounded by his children and grandchildren who took care of him, reminisced about the past with him, and laughed at his jokes. His health improved remarkably as his vital signs became stable. He was allowed to be transferred to a private room where he could be visited by even more family and friends.

On his second day in his private room, my husband and I were awoken by a frantic call from my sister-in-law who stayed with him overnight in the hospital. She said Daddy Manolo had been asking for my husband, and was saying “Pasakay na ako”. This, of course, could be interpreted as he was being picked up (sinusundo na) to be in his journey back to heaven.

My father-in-law then drifted into unconsciousness again and had not been responsive the whole day. My mother-in-law called in the priests of the Sacred Heart Shrine, where Daddy Manolo and Mommy Norma have been serving for decades, to give him the sacrament of extreme unction. My sisters-in-law, especially the youngest who had not been home for 13 years, were inconsolable.

And then, another miracle. He woke up and said “Great things are happening… Miracles are happening!”

He grew stronger and had been able to lift his arms and move his hands. His doctors were happy about his progress as we all were, and was given discharge clearance to go home. Daddy Manolo had always wanted to go home.

And so we prepared the house for him, bought him a hospital bed, oxygen tank, and private caregiver service for day and night to help Mommy Norma and my two sisters-in-law take care of him.

We got Daddy Manolo settled at home on the Feast of Christ the King. Daddy said when he had a heart attack, the image of Christ the King with the heart of Sacred Heart came to visit him in his dreams and asked him, “Handa ka na ba?” and he said not yet, requesting for a little more time.

Then it was time for us to go back to the United States. My husband had a very solemn talk with his father, affirming he has accomplished his mission, that he had been a good father and husband and servant of the Lord. My husband told him that it was okay to heed the call of Jesus if He calls his name again, and to follow the light. My husband reassured his father that we would all be okay, and gave him the promise we would all take care of Mommy Norma.

Ten days after we left for the U.S., Daddy Manolo went to be with the Lord.

My husband and his siblings were all grateful and blessed to have spent time with their father before he passed, to let him know and feel how much they love him while he was still alive. We did not wait for him to die to fly back home and bury his remains.

I was not able to do this with my own father when he passed away in 2014. We all thought he was getting better, having been discharged from the hospital to be at home. He died three days after he came home. It would seem that many people want to be in their own home when it was time for them to go back home to heaven. I went home to hug the lifeless body of my own father and had him cremated.

Of course, not everybody would have the opportunity, resources or option to go home during these difficult times. Some do not have immigration papers to leave the United States without the risk of being banned entry for staying in the country illegally.

One man without papeles lamented how painful it was that he was in the U.S. as a caregiver taking care of old people when he did not have the chance to take care of his own parents in their dying days because he had to stay in America so he could support his children. Ahhh… the painful choices we have to make.

So this holiday season and Christmas, I pray for our kababayans who have lost their loved ones while they were away from the Motherland. May you find peace in your hearts knowing our departed loved ones are in a better place now — no more pain and suffering, only eternal life, love, peace and joy in Paradise with our Creator.

Have a merry and blessed Christmas!

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Gel Santos Relos has been in news, talk, public service and educational broadcasting since 1989 with ABS-CBN and is now serving the Filipino audience using different platforms, including digital broadcasting, and print, and is working on a new public service program for the community. You may contact her through email at gelrelos@icloud.com, or send her a message via Facebook at Facebook.com/Gel.Santos.Relos.

Gel Santos Relos

Gel Santos Relos is the anchor of TFC’s “Balitang America.” Views and opinions expressed by the author in this column are solely those of the author and not of Asian Journal and ABS-CBN-TFC. For comments, go to www.TheFil-AmPerspective.com and www.facebook.com/Gel.Santos.Relos

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