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Missing lola: 5-yr-old grapples with grief after losing grandma to COVID

Photos courtesy of Chi Fuentebella. 

Expert gives tips on handling children who lost loved ones 

MANILA — When 5-year-old Pio was told his grandmother Lola Ghel would not come home anymore, the boy initially had a hard time processing the loss. 

"If I am not mistaken, sa age nila, ang death ay [akala nila] reversible... Pag nasa heaven puwedeng bumalik. Pero ine-explain naman namin sa kanya, na pag nasa heaven na, nandoon na sa heaven, hindi na siya puwedeng bumalik," said Pio's mom, Chi Fuentebella, who lost her mother to COVID in September. 

(They think death is reversible but we explained it to him that a person who died, who went to heaven, could no longer return)

Fuentebella's household — all 4 of them — caught the novel coronavirus that month. Four of her close relatives also died earlier this year, two of whom caught the respiratory disease.

The nurse narrated that her son was affected the most when the matriarch passed away. Pio used to sleep beside her grandmother, she said. 

Now, the family is coping with Lola Ghel's death through singing, praying, and dedicating a place for her in their home, where they could light a candle and put flowers. 

It is at this altar that Pio is able to release his emotions.

"Doon namin napapansin, si Pio, out of nowhere uupo doon, maglalaro tapos kakausapin niya yung lola niya, bibigyan ng pagkain. Yun kasi yung usual na ginagawa niya," she explained. 

(When his lola's urn has yet to arrive, we already made a place for her. Then we noticed that Pio would go there to play or he would talk to Lola Ghel or give her food. That's what he usually did)

To also help Pio grieve, Fuentebella bought a book published by Adarna House: "Ang Mga Lambing ni Lolo Ding," which talked about the death of a grandparent, and read it to him to put into words their emotions during the time.

Chi Fuentebella narrates that she read a book to her son to help them grieve with her mother's death. 

She also remembered just breaking down with her husband one night, and allowed Pio to cry with them.

HANDLING A CHILD'S GRIEF

Clinical psychologist Dr. Ruben Encarnacion told ABS-CBN News that it is important not to sugarcoat what happened to a loved one once they pass away. 

Memorials, burials or inurnment, or any ceremony in memory of the deceased will also help some children to grieve. 

"Yung religious and cultural rituals, that comes in once teenager na ang bata... Young children interpret what they are told in a very literal and concrete way. So if you say your mother got lost, or your father just went away, that will cause misunderstanding and confusion," he said. 

The psychologist also emphasized that parents or guardians of a child should be "well-composed" and show that they are secured despite what happened. 

"If you are well-composed and you accept the death gracefully, the children will be more comfortable," he explained. 

"The more okay the parents are, the better they carry their grieving, the child gets more comfortable. The child is watching you closely," according to Encarnacion.

Here are some tips the expert gave when it comes to handling a child's grief during the pandemic. 

  • Remind them that not everyone who gets sick would die. 
  • Reassure your child that you are healthy. 
  • Let your child know how many people love them. 
  • Support the children to reduce their anxiety and not to be sensitive about what happened.
  • You have to take care of yourself and make sure you have support.

These, he said, helps reassure a child that you are grieving but "not falling into pieces."

Some issues need to be handled by adults, the expert added. 

Encarnacion added that toddlers (children aged 4 below) do not have a sense that death is permanent and irreversible. This is why being direct to the point should be important. 

He said that confusion may arise among abstract concepts. 

"It is not advisable to tell them the person has gone to sleep or the person has gone to heaven, or Jesus took them away. Because..they'll be afraid to sleep," he noted. 

Adults mourning due to the loss of a beloved, on the other hand, should talk about it with someone. 

If they are still in quarantine and in mourning, having a photo of a loved one helps. If they are with their children, saying a prayer would also help alleviate the sadness.

"It helps the children a lot, to be aware that their tito is sick, and that all of them are praying for their tito to get well. That pieces them into an acceptance of sickness and the possibility that the person might die," he said. 

"Novena, Zoom masses help a lot, especially children, to cope with death and see the death as final. A public event... many people are missing him and are thinking of him and are praying for him."

LOVE 

If there's something her family learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, Fuentebella said it is the importance of "saying I love you more often," while one still has a chance. 

"Hindi mo alam kung kailan kukunin yung mahal mo sa buhay kung hindi mo masabi yun, that will be one of the mistakes you'll ever have. It makes you realize na ung mga tao sa paligid mo, mahalaga sila," she said. 

(You don't know when you will lose your loved one. It makes you realize that every person around you is important)

"Yung iba kasi hindi sila showy, pero sana kung may maramdaman silang may loss sa pamilya... wag silang mag-aksaya ng panahon na ipakita ang love and care kasi hindi natin alam if maipapakita pa nila ulit sa mga tao."

(Some are not showy but I hope they won't waste the opportunity to show their love and care because we don't know until when we have that chance.)

Mental health advocate Dr. Tito Almadin earlier said a person can still hope while grieving. 

He emphasized that people could still be hopeful by relying on God and on one's "confidence that we will get better." 

Moreover, grieving due to loss of property, possessions, and loss of loved ones is normal because we are human, Almadin had said. 

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