Thursday, December 22, 2011

Season of immense grieving, immense giving

Storm “Sendong” struck in the wee hours when most people were asleep. Weather experts and forecasters were stunned upon beholding the aftermath of Sendong’s force and fury. But it was not Sendong’s wrath from the sky alone that caused the destruction. Elements on the ground conspired—silted rivers and congested riverbanks, poor urban drainage systems, denuded forests. It was not all Sendong’s fault. There surely will be a time for fault-finding. It didn’t have to be as bad as this.

And yes, this had been predicted three years ago, foretold, if you may, not by armchair doomsday soothsayers, but by individuals and groups that have been working on the ground and using science so that the authorities and their constituencies could be forewarned and be prepared. They were laughed out of the room. (Read “Sendong disaster foretold 3 years ago” by Kristine L. Alave, Inquirer, 12/20/11.)

Everything in words has been said about the immensity of the grief of the people who survived last weekend’s calamity that visited the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan as well as other Mindanao and Visayan areas. But there are not enough words.

Almost a thousand dead and countless still missing. The counting continues. The live images of devastation that stream on the TV screen, the still images on print, the wailing, the weeping. Dead people, dead animals, debris, mud, water, wreckage, decay. Hunger, thirst, disease, and worst of all, immeasurable loss. How to go on living when one’s loved ones have been suddenly swept away without warning, only to be found lifeless in the most unlikely places, disfigured and wrapped in sticky mud?

We think we have seen enough tragedies in this world. But sometimes our defenses are pulled away suddenly and we experience the rawness of it all. On TV one beholds a solitary mother squatting and cradling her muddied baby, limp and lifeless. There are no tears in her eyes, no words from her lips, but on her mouth is a frozen scream. You find yourself breaking into sobs.
Journalists don’t easily shed tears. Or we seldom do. Not when we are on coverage. There is a protective shield that we put between us and the subject matter before us so that we don’t cross the divide. The shield or armor could take the form of a tape recorder, a microphone, a camera, a notebook, a moving pen. The deadline. The press ID. These set us comfortably apart. And when everything is over, we think we can stand up and easily leave, leave behind all that we have caught in our electronic gadgets or on paper and proceed to write in isolation about the discomfiting scenes we have witnessed, the tearing grief, the despair.
But that is not always the case. There are times when one has to lay down one’s arms, so to speak, and simply listen and be there because that is the best way to catch it all (the journalist switching to another mode). Or because it is the human thing to do.

I recall the time I was at the Payatas dump right after it collapsed on hundreds of waste pickers and on hundreds of homes around it. That was in July 2000. The most heart-rending scene for me was not how the dead bodies were being pulled out one after another from under the foul heap. It was watching a man who was waiting for his dead mother, pregnant wife and child to be brought into the chapel. They were among the first to be found, placed in coffins and brought to the chapel near the dump.

There were no media people in the chapel except myself. Everybody was at the disaster site, waiting for more bodies to be retrieved. A small man in black T-shirt and slippers was standing alone by the chapel entrance, watching. Are they yours, I whispered. He nodded. I stood beside him. Then he began to sob softly. I squeezed his shoulder and turned around to wipe my face. I could not picture anything sadder.

There’s no saying how or when it will hit you. It might interest people to know that journalists also need to go through some post-traumatic stress management. You can’t be at the disaster site the whole time and not notice something crumbling inside you. A good cry is a good start, I assure you.

Stunned, confused and listless, we coast in a sea of pain this Christmas season. But the positive side of this is the quick reaction of ordinary people to find concrete ways to send assistance to our badly stricken fellow Filipinos. The government cannot do it all. The NGOs cannot do it all. The churches cannot do it all. It is individuals (with or without connections) who can make the difference. There is no need to say how. This is the time to be creative. I know families that have drastically simplified their Christmas feasting in order to share with those who are disconsolate and need healing.

The grief is immense, but the ocean inside of us holds immense gifts waiting to be shared. For those who have given up their best and given till it hurt to those who have lost everything, this is your moment, your most meaningful Christmas yet.

Makabuluhan at makahulugang Pasko sa inyong lahat. May Jesus’ peace overwhelm and surprise you when you least expect it. Come, Wondrous Healer!

Send feedback to or