Grieving in the time of COVID-19 'worst of the worst': Villanueva

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 03 2020 06:53 PM | Updated as of Nov 03 2020 07:03 PM

Grieving in the time of COVID-19 'worst of the worst': Villanueva 1
Sen. Joel Villanueva weeps in front of the casket of his younger sister, late Bocaue Mayor Joni Villanueva-Tugna, who died in May at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo from Sen. Joel Villanueva's Instagram page

MANILA - When his mother and younger sister died less than 60 days apart, Sen. Joel Villanueva considered quitting the Senate. 

The senator's mom - Adoracion "Sister Dory" Villanueva - died in March due to a heart rhythm disorder and her years-long bout with cancer, while his closest sibling - Bocaue Mayor Joni Villanueva-Tugna - passed away in May due to a "common viral infection."

Their passing all happened during an extraordinary time, when the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the country, restricting even customs related to grieving for the departed. 

"It's devastating. It's worst of the worst," Villanueva told ABS-CBN News in a virtual interview.

"Even the idea of resigning, I even thought about it because lahat gumuho eh (everything came crashing down)," he said.

"I wanted to show everyone that my family comes first, na walang mas mahalaga sa akin kung hindi family ko and I can give up everything," he said.

(I wanted to show everyone that my family comes first, that there is nothing more important than my family and I can give up everything.)

The tragedy of losing two close family members during the global pandemic was so "devastating" that stepping down from a position of power was considered a respite, the senator said.

"People text you every day as if it's your birthday, asking this and that. People rub you on your shoulders like you are a genie and would ask for the moon and the stars," Villanueva said.

"I lived my life like that for more than 18 years... A lot of people don't realize that [I'm still grieving]. A lot of people think you're a regular politician," he said.

But instead of relinquishing his seat in the Senate, Villanueva focused on work to "divert attention" and got busy with legislation, even during his sister's wake.

"That was so hard. Right behind that door lies the state of my sister's body and I was debating," he said, noting that his sister's wake coincided with Senate deliberations on the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act, the Philippines' first COVID-19 aid package. 

"Once in a while, during plenary deliberations, I would go out and peek at my sister's remains and I would cry out 10, 15 minutes straight and I would go back to that small room and again participate in the legislative process," he said.

"That was very hard. That was very tough," he said.


Villanueva succeeded in using work as an escape from anguish.

Congress managed to pass 2 COVID-19 aid laws that authorized the executive department to disburse billions of emergency funding for pandemic-hit sectors.

Villanueva also heralded the passage of the Doktor Para sa Bayan Act, which provides medical scholarships for deserving Filipino students, and was among 8 senators who registered complete attendance in the first regular session of the 18th Congress.

"When I was doing that thing, I wasn't even thinking of healthy living," he said.

"One, I wanted to divert my attention. Two... it's one way for me to honor my sister, to honor my mom. That has been my driving force," he said.

Work was a welcome diversion because it was "odd" to grieve during the global pandemic, Villanueva said.

"Now I realize it's healthy for me to be in that position. I was able to do something more significant than just by being in one side, in one corner, grieving," he said.

"I am not saying grieving is not important but this stage of life in the midst of this pandemic, it's kinda odd," he said, noting that some of his friends could not come over to check on him because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

"It's odd because wala tayong puwedeng pagkuhanan ng model or anything na ganito 'yun [dapat gawin] because we have never experienced this kind of pandemic before," he said.

(It's off because we don't have a playbook for this because we have never experienced this kind of pandemic before.)


Just like Villanueva, thousands of Filipinos have been struggling to grieve and cope with the demise of loved ones during the COVID-19 crisis, psychotherapist Dr. Randy Dellosa said.

The COVID-19 pandemic "shortened the grieving period so it became abrupt... There were fewer opportunities to say a gradual goodbye," Dellosa told ABS-CBN News in a separate interview.

Most Filipinos were forced to either forego or cut short some traditions in honoring the dead as the highly-contagious virus forced people to stay indoors and minimize contact with others.

Community activities - like novenas to mark the 9th and 40th day of someone's demise - were temporarily banned during the Luzon lockdown as scientists found that COVID-19 tends to easily spread in crowded spaces.

The public was also barred from trooping to cemeteries this year for the All Saints' and All Souls' Day holidays to pray for their departed loved ones. 

"Even if they were just customs, they are actually a source of physical contact, of hugs, of shared tears, of condolences and also distractions so that the grieving person would not feel too heavily burdened," Dellosa said.

"Virtual condolence messages will never replace actual communication, actual tears," he said.


The uncertainty brought by the health and economic crisis, as well as new normal adjustments to keep infection numbers at bay has prompted more Filipinos to seek help from mental professionals, Dellosa said.

Phone consultations have "doubled" because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said the psychotherapist who runs a clinic and wellness center in Quezon City.

"Most of them are calling because of depression, because of anxiety," he said. 

"Others call because of boredom, a lot of their issues from way back, from childhood resurface," he said.

There is also a rise in the number of patients who were diagnosed with germophobia and "coronaphobia," which is defined as fear of anything related to the virus that originated from Wuhan, China, Dellosa said.

Cases of addiction referred to his wellness center also increased as many Filipinos turned to narcotics, alcohol and nicotine to cope with problems due to the global pandemic, he said.

"There are also behavioral addictions such as gaming, social media, porn, food addiction," he said.


Villanueva said he was among those who tried to seek professional help after realizing that he still had trouble accepting that he would never have Sunday brunches or random phone calls with his mother and his sister, and that his family "will never be the same again."

"Parang (It's as if) I am being forced to accept it but I have to admit that somehow I'm still in denial at this stage because I am having a hard time accepting it," he said.

"If I couldn't sleep at night, I would just say or convince myself that I would be able to see Joni tomorrow, she's in Bocaue... It's still very hard," he said.

The senator has broken down in tears twice while the Senate session is on going. First, when the chamber passed a resolution condoling with his family, and second, when he got the unanimous approval of his colleagues to pass the Doktor Para sa Bayan Act.

"First of all, I have to admit, there's more than 2 [meltdowns] in the Session hall, and 3 or 4 times inside the Senate lounge," he said.

"But I would also say that the worst is when you're by yourself," he said.

Prayerful Villanueva, son of Jesus Is Lord Movement founder Bro. Eddie Villanueva, said he began reaching out to "pastors and some guidance counselors" and also considered getting "professional help from the medical field."

"In fact I have [considered] 3 or 4 doctors and I'm not ashamed of it," he said.

"If you really need to talk to professionals and guidance counselors, you should do it," he said.

But the lawmaker's consultations with doctors did not push through after he found it uncomfortable to share his grief to a stranger in front of a computer screen or over an app.

"Some of my relatives did it... but I'm not comfortable with it... I think it has to be done in person," he said.

Villanueva instead turned to his friends, including other senators, to vent.

Among his peers who frequently received his calls were Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri and Senators Nancy Binay, Sherwin Gatchalian and Grace Poe.

"I talked to them a lot about it. I talked to them about everything I am feeling," he said.

Sen. Sonny Angara listened to most of the rants, Villanueva said, chuckling at the memory.

"Sonny would always be there. I would talk to him. I would even rant and say a lot of non-sense stuff," he said.

"But he (Angara) wouldn't say anything and that's good because probably I just need someone who would listen to me," he said.


The immense loss led to questioning God, Villanueva said. 

But about half a year since his sister was laid to rest, Villanueva said he has sought God's forgiveness for the things he said when his emotions were running high. Still, he admits, he is not yet done grieving.

"I guess you can't blame me for still asking those questions [to God]. I still ask these questions. I still do," he said.

"I think I already know the answer it's just that somehow I'm trying to deny to myself that I already know the answer," he said.

Villanueva took a deep breath before he shared his realization, which he said is still hard to accept.

"The answer is that my mom and Joni served their purpose," the senator said.

"It is now for the living to continue the good fight," he said.

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