Sickness and Death in the Philippines

Note: There’s not a lot of humor in the following piece. Next time – I promise!

Sunday morning Janet got up early to check her messages. I wasn’t surprised. Her department at work is short-handed and she sort of expected to get called in on her day off. She’s an Asst. Manager and I am very proud of her, but this crap happens all too often.

She threw on some clothes and I expected to hear that she’d gotten called in. Instead she only said, “my uncle died.”

“What? You mean the one who was sick?” Actually in my pre-awake haze I’d gotten that wrong. Another uncle’s wife had been ill and there had been several calls and drama about that over the previous week. A young woman in her early 30s she’d been going to doctors for months and they hadn’t yet solved the problem. In the end the family decided that she should travel to her parents’ home for rest and recuperation. But what to do about her three children? Her husband would come home to care for them and my mother in law volunteered to care for one of the kids, who immediately moved in with the family.

My mother in law has raised ten kids, three of whom are young and still live at home. In addition, she has two baby/toddler grandkids who live next door and spend much of their day with grandma. In fact so much of their day is spent with her that they call her “mama.” It’s common in the Philippines.

She has made it very clear that if Janet and I ever have a child and if we would like to drop off the child for a little while – oh, say six months – that would be fine with her! She’s had a lot of kids and grandkids, but no white babies with long noses yet 🙂

So it was no surprise that she took on her brother’s child so that the child’s mother could recover. Unfortunately, the woman doesn’t truly think she will recover and worries about what to do with her children after her death.

So naturally, early in the morning, I got the various family members confused. “No, not her,” Janet said. “My other uncle. Another of my mother’s brothers. You remember.” And I did remember meeting him and his being a nice guy. He too couldn’t wait until Janet had her “white baby.”

“What happened?” I asked. Take the following account with a grain of salt, because it’s third hand and told in a different language.

“His leg was hurting and they took him to the hospital in Dalaguete.” Now hospital is a misnomer here; the small town of Dalaguete, in Southern Cebu, has little more than a clinic. In the clinic, Uncle complained that the pain was greater and he could not move his leg. Though not deemed critical, the situation was serious enough that they recommended he be referred to a hospital in Cebu City.

His wife was told by friends that she ought to apologize for any arguments they had had. This is apparently a common belief in the Philippines before death, where spirits that have unresolved conflicts can’t fly free. But in her view the condition wasn’t serious enough for the apology. She and other friends and relatives sat by Uncle, who had fallen asleep, as they awaited to arrange the transfer. Unfortunately Uncle had not fallen asleep; he’d passed away in his sleep.

The family was stunned as was Janet. Her Uncle was in his latter 50s; still relatively young; younger than Janet’s geriatric husband. And he was relatively healthy.

An autopsy was performed. It showed that he’d had a wound on the affected leg and apparently an infection traveled to the brain.

Janet was devastated by the loss of her uncle. The day was spent with lots of phone conversations and Facebook messages.

And of course when a death occurs you can’t help but think of one thing – your own death.

“I changed my mind,” Janet said. “If I die you don’t have to ship my body back to the Philippines. Just cremate me.”

“Why did you decide that?”

“It’s too expensive.”

“I’m sure I can manage. I’d call your mom and see what she wanted done. But what are you talking about? You’re 27. You’re not dying. You will at least make it till we retire in the Philippines in two years.”

“Well it’s too expensive.”

“Speaking of expensive, don’t spend much on my funeral. I don’t care – I’ll be dead.”

Of course this led to the most important question and the one that I knew was coming: should we contribute to Uncle’s funeral expenses, or more accurately, how much should we contribute?

“How much do funerals cost in the Philippines?” I asked.

“It’s very expensive. I know how much was spent for my lola’s coffin.”

I Googled it and actually found lots of information on funeral costs in the Philippines. Of course, just as in the US, you could spend nearly any amount, from 10,000P to 1,000,000P.

After some back and forth discussion I proposed a figure. Janet scrunched her nose. I wasn’t sure if that meant the figure was too little or too much. “Ask your mom how much it’s all gonna cost and then we can decide,” I said. But we certainly decided that while we were ok with contributing we were not going to pay the whole thing.

At night Janet called her mom again. After getting all the latest news Janet proposed our contribution. Her mom countered the figure – lower.

“Mom says you get a 20% discount,” Janet said and we both laughed; the first laugh of the day for Janet. In reality the amount was modest and once again showed me that for all the complaints from some expats about their Filipina’s family, I have a great one!

BTW, here’s another example of how wonderful my Filipino family is. Janet’s mom complained because her 19 year old son, now gainfully employed in Cebu City, called her 4 times to make sure she was OK. She had just lost her favorite brother and was no doubt heartbroken. But mom was amused and annoyed that the son wouldn’t leave her alone.

As with all deaths which occur suddenly, there were lots of comments all day about what a good thing it was that Uncle didn’t suffer.

My attitudes toward my own death have changed so much over the years. When I was 20 I was positive that I would “live fast and die young.” By middle age I figured I would live fairly long, not enjoy it too much and work till I died. Now at 62 I find myself at times a bit scared. I have so much to live for and don’t want to lose a moment of it!

P.S. Watching a movie Janet just leaned over and told me, “I want a baby more than ever.” We all think of our mortality in different ways. Clearly I have some work to do before I go 🙂


6 thoughts on “Sickness and Death in the Philippines”

  1. My condolences to Janet/family, Dave. My wife’s sister (only 39 yrs old) also passed a few months back and we have a similar great family whereas everyone chips in what they can for the unexpected. It feels better to be part of the solution that the only solution when things like this need to play out.

    1. Thanks, SteveT!

      This was actually a time when I was happy that Western Union exists and that the money was transferred quickly.

  2. My condolences to you both and your wife’s family.

    I enjoy reading your blog from someone that is further along in a similar relationship. Cindy and I were married this Jan in her hometown on Sibonga. You’ve given me much help in understanding some of the cultural issues that have come up. Thankfully we haven’t had to deal with this one yet.

    BTW I’ve found that Remitly gives a little better exchange rate with comparable fees and has been just as reputable as WU.

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