Where do we go when grief is everywhere?

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Can online spaces and friendships hold our grief, especially in physical isolation? What do we do if the answer is no? Illustration by JL JAVIER

I am watching a college YouTube video when the camera pans to the audience to capture their reactions. There is joy in seeing the familiar faces — EnLit classmates at the time, theater folks that I would only meet later on, a friend’s college crush or two. Then I see someone who makes me pause. I stare at her for a moment, then I begin to tear up when I realize who it is and remember that she has passed away.

It’s in the middle of the night but I go back to her Facebook profile, now memorialized, and I compare the video frame with her old pictures side-by-side. It isn’t her. I see a message of mine, one that I sent months after her death:

“Sorry di tayo naging ganoon ka-close. Akala ko kasi may oras pa tayo.”

I scroll up to see the rest of our messages and realize they’re few and far between. Most of our interactions were in person. It is weird to have known someone and to be left with so little proof that your friendship existed. I hover my cursor over the small x that will close our conversation. I say a little prayer and mutter a small apology before I click. Just like that, she is gone again.

What is life but an endless series of goodbyes?

Digital remains

Since the pandemic began, we’ve lost over 17,000 people in the Philippines to COVID-19 alone. The body count grows higher when we include the lives lost due to accidents, typhoons, and treatments that were unable to be performed due to risk of exposure. To call this one of the worst public health disasters in the last century is an understatement and it has left most of us to confront our mortality on a daily basis.

When I see a friend change their profile picture, what used to be happiness has now been replaced by panic. Social media has transformed into a digital graveyard; a rolling obituary created to commemorate and humanize what we only often see as a statistic onscreen. Condolences now replace compliments in the comments sections; tweets are now triggers; Facebook memories now hold reminders of the deceased.

The pandemic has disrupted all aspects of not only life, but also death.

Before, grieving was an act of community. Wakes and funerals were where we shared not only food but also stories of the deceased. But now, a "good death" is rare, if at all still possible. Families are unable to say proper goodbyes and friends are unable to provide emotional and financial support. Our rooms, our once personal spaces, have been transmogrified by this communal grief into a form of solitary confinement, our sentences indefinite.

The place where we sleep is the place that we toil for our work or grades, and is the place where we must inevitably deal with the things that we cannot seem to change.

Humans aren’t built to mourn forever, moreso alone. People have lost not just family members, but also opportunities and important relationships. We cannot seem to take to the streets without fear of infecting ourselves or our loved ones, so our anger is left to fester in limbo. A year ago, whatever we couldn’t express with our words or actions, we could make up for through our physical presence. We could comfort each other by simply sitting with one another through our storms. However, in this digital age, society seems to assume our constant availability and so whatever little energy the pandemic leaves us, we use to keep ourselves afloat somehow. The social distance meant to keep us alive is now killing us.

I’ve been burying friends every year since I was 10, but nothing could’ve prepared me for this.

Missing emotional geographies

When I returned to Pangasinan for Christmas with my family, the first thing I noticed was how quiet it was. There was no laughter from kids playing patintero on the streets; no roar from three-pointers in nearby basketball courts; no ringing sound from vendors who used to roam the streets. The silence was a deafening reminder of the reason people needed to stay inside.

Convenience stores, bars, gigs, parks, pools, cinemas, and so many other spaces served as estuaries for emotion. Whether it was a family member passing away or a break up with their significant other or getting fired from a job or failing an exam, those who had lost and loved in any shape or form had the opportunity to share songs and food or a drink and a dance before we had to confront the monsters too big to handle alone in their homes. These third spaces held our emotions for us when we couldn’t and allowed us the time to prepare ourselves for those confrontations.

It isn’t emphasized enough that, in the process of coming into terms with grief, one needed to commemorate and celebrate life. Moments of solitude during ceremonies were as important as the noise of the living. The cries of children at church, the shouts of joy at wedding banquets, the screeching at the karaoke during birthdays, and even the chants at protests were reminders that life extended beyond our own; that our concerns, though heavy and valid as any psychologist was bound to say, were infinitesimal in the grand scheme of the universe.

But now, these emotional geographies are nowhere to be found. Government incompetence and negligence has erased the possibility of gathering, leaving once communal spaces empty or closed down as they continue to be breeding grounds for death. State-sponsored violence has created fear in seeking connection outside and has turned nature into a hazard, preventing us from revisiting these spaces that once held us. The place where we sleep is the place that we toil for our work or grades, and is the place where we must inevitably deal with the things that we cannot seem to change.

Where do you go when what you’re avoiding is everywhere?

Reclaiming landscapes

“Do you remember what the Walrus building looked like pre-Walrus?”

It’s in the middle of the night when a friend of mine messages me out of the blue. Before I get to reply, he links me to a series of images from Google maps: all of the places that have closed down along Katipunan. We begin to tell each other our stories: of failed relationships, missed opportunities, and good memories tied to these landmarks now left empty or abandoned.

“A piece of it still exists,” he says. “That’s really beautiful to me.”

Digital relationships can only approximate in-person connections and survival seems to be easiest when we disconnect. Yet connection is what keeps surviving this endless wait worthwhile. Memorialization is valuable because it turns the grief into something communal — whether through individual Facebook posts by citizens that we choose emojis for or mass memorialization by communities and governments. It makes things bearable, reminds us that we are seen and heard, and enables a community to accompany one another towards some form of healing.

Revisiting landscapes has become possible along with the creation of new spaces on and offline.

Zoom has hosted everything from theater to religious rituals like weddings and funerals. Twitter spaces and Clubhouse have allowed online discussions that capture the spontaneity of casual conversation (and eavesdropping). Online Facebook groups have become digital markets to help farmers directly and serve as sources of assistance for the confused. Discord has turned into proxy cafes and movie theaters. The Maginhawa community pantry, along with the many other pantries that it inspired nationwide, has created a space and a movement for people to help one another anonymously.

In the ingenuity of the creation of these spaces, I find some comfort. These encourage us to continue to share our presence, even if being present now means something different. There is still an immense digital divide that must be solved for so many of these spaces are still inaccessible to the poorest of the poor. Yet these efforts tell us that there are new emotional geographies to be discovered, people mapping them out, and travelers willing to explore with us.

In face of so much suffering, we are called to create spaces within ourselves to hold not only our own grief, but the grief of others. Dignified deaths are not dictated by space alone, but by love and companionship that extends past these physical limits. Mourning has taken an archipelagic form. These remind us that it is still possible to be united and present for one another even in physical separation.

So I look at my loved ones and I make these promises of remembering even if I do not know if I will ever get to keep them. It is natural to forget for life is truly impermanent. But that is what human beings do: we live and love beyond our knowing.