Death and Dying: A Filipino American Perspective
By Mariel Toni Jimenez. This article originally appeared on AsAmNews.
The concept of family is strong in Filipino culture. As far as I can remember, growing up both in San Francisco, then in Quezon City, Philippines, to attend school, I always heard the phrase, “Blood is thicker than water.”
Having close family ties is one of the outstanding cultural values that Filipinos have. The family takes care of each other and is taught to be loyal to family and elders by simply obeying their authorities. Having fondness for family reunions during secular and religious holidays, such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, All Souls Day, Holy Week, Fiestas, homecomings, birthdays, weddings, graduations, baptisms, and funerals, is evidence that Filipino people value not only our cultural tradition, but also the family spirit.
Death in the Philippines is one of the most important occasions in family life. For many Filipinos, a death of a relative is an opportunity to strengthen ties in the family. To pay respect and honor the relationship to the deceased, long lost relatives, friends and even relatives working abroad are reunited. The Philippines is the home of some unique death rituals that are partly religious and mostly superstitious. The mourning and the weeping are still present, but a happy and welcoming atmosphere would usually take place to help the deceased on his journey to the afterlife.
The ”Siyam Na Araw”
Among the rituals that Filipino practice is that following the death of a person, the family holds a nine-day period of a novena, including prayers and masses offered to the deceased. The beginning of the “Siyam na araw” varies, but it usually ends the week after the death.
After death there is a 40-day mourning period. Family members indicate their state of bereavement by wearing a small, black rectangular plastic pin on their left breast or breast pocket area. A ceremonial mass is held at the end of this 40-day period. Common belief states that the soul goes to Heaven after these 40 days, following the belief that Jesus Christ ascended to Heaven after that period.
Death came in a sequence for me. In 2009, I lost my mother, then in 2012, my spouse, then in 2015, I lost my sister and in 2017, I lost my youngest brother. I must say that I lost faith and was forsaken. I sought out help and answers from our parish priest on how to deal with losing faith, being unprepared, and literally trying to sabotage everything that mattered as I experienced deep chronic depression.
Father Edward Inyanwachi, currently Director of Education at Catholic Diocese of Abakalaliki in Nigeria, then former Pastor at Archdiocese of San Francisco, replied. He said that as a priest, one of the main issues he encountered in dealing with death and dying is not only the unpredictability of death, but also the fact that loved ones do not have the power to prevent it despite the advancement in technology.
Father Inyanwachi went on to say that in the face of death, whether of the young or the old, many families not only feel helpless, but also do sometimes question God. Many believe that if God actually loved them, He would allow their loved one to remain here on earth, rather than take him or her away from this life.
He told me, “In the midst of their pain, many wonder why a loving God would allow such a horrible pain to befall them. They seek an explanation and even express anger at God. But as a priest I have come to realize that it is no use trying to understand or explain death to people. Death is a deep mystery; it is our full participation in the complete self-gift of Christ to the Father. And only faith in Christ who died and rose from the dead can put death into perspective for us.”
Family Conflict and Avoiding Lawyers
The family is said to be the building block of the Philippine society. Filipinos have close family ties, which extends to a great circle of relatives, usually including third cousins. Their sense of kinship is very strong and neighbors can usually be traced as distant family relations.
With the onset of losing my mother, my siblings – Ate, Kuya and I stopped talking. Instead, lawyers were now a part of the conversation, which could have been avoided from the beginning. During these years of non-communication, not only did I lose time to be with them and experience mourning our common loss, instead it was “them” against “me.”
In the end, the lawyers made their money and after years of fighting, my mom’s house was sold. To this day, I ask myself, “How does our Filipino family values come into play?” If we are truly close to family, why in the midst of death, our value system is suspended and the reality sets in that we are all fighting over a material object – in this case, the house and proceeds of it.
I had a chance to interview author and psychologist Kevin Nadal, who teaches undergraduate and graduate classes at three City University of New York campuses.
According to Nadal, “Often, family conflict arises when death occurs because many Filipino Americans do not like to discuss conflict at all, a lot of conflictual family dynamics come out after death. Examples can range from people holding onto grudges or families fighting over money or property.”
He added “How Filipinos deal with death depends on a number of things – what part of the Philippines they’re from, how Americanized they are, how much of a family or community they have around them.
On the other hand, Aileen Reyes, a nurse at Kaiser Permanente, observed, “Death and dying may bring Filipino families closer together.” She said, “I had an uncle that got really sick. His family was from Long Island, N.Y., but his ailment had brought other family members from Queens, New Jersey, Canada, Philippines and California together.”
I asked Father Edward about how family values play into death and dying, especially for the Filipino immigrant the family that is 100% Roman Catholic and living in the United States.
He explained that for Filipinos, “like other migrants, their cultural experiences are closely tied to their religious beliefs. The Christian faith has so permeated the environment of most migrants in the U.S. that they cannot explain anything about themselves without recourse to their Christian belief. It is a way of life, a way of identifying and explaining life and the mysteries of life. Hence, when these individuals or families move to the United States, they do bring along their Christian experience as previously lived in their home country.
Family Values Central to Migrants
He added, “Family values are central to the cultural experiences of migrants. Family is the center of life and the key to describing an individual identity. The individual defines himself or herself only within the context of family and family life. Attachment to family is important and necessary for success in life. This attachment to family entails also attachment to the homeland. Hence, the distance between the United States and the Philippines is not felt much as long as the individual stays connected with family back home.”
Also, said Father Edward, “This explains why most migrants continue to send money home, not only to assist family members, but also to maintain their family ties (to register their presence despite their residence in the United States). Now when such migrants are faced with death and dying, they have no other explanation than that which their religious belief has ingrained in them, and which they experience daily within the family. Hence, death is not only painful because it creates a vacuum, but more importantly it increases the distance between the surviving migrants and the family back in the homeland.”
In the Philippines, a death is often a shared experience death because people within bayanihans all know each other. The bayanihan (pronounced, buy-uh-nee-hun) is a Filipino custom derived from a Filipino word bayan, which means nation, town or community. The term bayanihan itself literally means “being in a bayan,” which refers to the spirit of communal unity, work and cooperation to achieve a particular goal.
In addition, Kaiser Permanente nurse Aileen Reyes explained that — some Filipinos who have lived in the U.S., still have some family members living in the Philippines. So whenever there is a death in the family, family members have to travel back to the Philippines to attend and take care of the funeral services, and vice-versa. If there is a death of a family member in the United States, family members in the Philippines have to request for a visa to come here to attend the funeral, if they have the means to do so.
Funeral Live Streamed
I know of a family in Stockton, California. All sisters live and work as caretakers. Since their arrival in 1971, their Nanay, or mother, has not been back to the Philippines. During a vacation in 2018, Nanay became ill and died. It was a hardship for two of the three sisters to travel back to the Philippines to attend the funeral services. Instead, there was a live-stream in real time of the mass and internment. Times have changed with digital and electronic capabilities. Mourning someone can be done over cyber waves.
What stands as a constant is the Catholic perspective of death and dying. Father Edward explained that both Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church teach that while death is the consequence of sin and the end of earthly life, it was not part of the original plan of God for man. God’s plan was for a share in eternal life for man, but it got derailed by sin. As a result something had to be done to deal with death and restore mankind to right relationship with God.
Consequently, he continued, Christ transformed death by submitting to it as a complete and free gift of himself to the Father. In this act of obedience, Christ transformed the curse and pain of death into a blessing. (cf. 1 Cor. 15:26, Mk. 14:33-34, Heb. 5:7-8, Rom. 5:19-21, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1007 -1014) Therefore, because of Christ, the Catholic understanding of death is a positive one. The essential thing here is this: Through Baptism, the Christian has already died with Christ in sacrament, in order to live a new life; and if we die in Christ’s grace, physical death completes this ‘dying with Christ’ and so completes our incorporation into him in his redeeming act.
Filipinos are generally known as hospitable people. Visitors may come without notice and they will still be accommodated and entertained. Filipinos sincerely believe that serving others in the best way possible will earn them honor and friendship.
Aileen shared, “As a nurse, family members come to me to explain to them the pathophysiology of their loved ones diseases in simple terms or whether their decisions about plan of care was the correct one. With death and dying there is never a correct answer. The answer would be: What the person who is dying wishes for him or herself.”
She added, “There was an uncle that had wished to visit the Philippines when he was still alive, his family initially refused to let him go because of his disease and his chemo treatments. They had sought my advice about this issue. After hearing them out and knowing more of his disease progression and also finding out what our uncle really wanted to do, I assisted him to buy the tickets to the Philippines. He was able to visit one more time after that before he passed away. I felt good about this knowing his wishes were to see his son and grandkids in the Philippines.”
Death and dying within the Filipino American family for the most part has contradictory aspects of family interaction from the notion that Filipinos value family and have close family ties. This is illustrated with my account of the death of my mother. I have yet to find out how to overcome bad and negative behavior. In the meantime, the Filipino American family is ever evolving in the United States.
Mariel Toni Jimenez wrote this article with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and AARP. A teacher in the Ethnic Studies department at California State University, Sacramento, she is also vice chair of the Stockton Arts Commission. Jimenez is a former broadcast journalist with Filipino American Report based in San Francisco
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.