That morning, I’d flown back to London from Geneva, Switzerland, where I was on a summer internship program, to ensure my nanay (Tagalog for mum), Lilila, was going to be okay. Though it had been a tumultuous year, I was convinced she would be fine. She’d been diagnosed with lung cancer the previous summer, though she had never smoked and barely drank. Then, a few months later, she was unexpectedly given the all-clear by the oncologist. My sister and I were relieved. On the plane back to London, I was still operating with the mindset that she was healthy, that her persistent exhaustion was normal, that soon we could all return to regular life.
By the time I arrived at the hospital, my mum wasn’t herself. She saw us, smiled, and quickly deteriorated as doctors tried to figure out what was going on. They were unable to and when she slipped away a few hours later, I was heartbroken, but also angry: with the doctors, but also with myself, at not being able to save her. Those feelings continue to this day, partly because it was never clear what happened to her. This anger complicates my memory of my mother. I wasn’t simply able to remember her as the kindest person I ever knew or the person who gave me the gifts I am most proud of; instead, her memory is darkened by the confusion of that day, the feeling of helplessness.
The experience of loss and grief after a traumatic event is hard to put into words. I’ve heard therapists and friends in London and New York, where I’m now based at Columbia University, attempt to find common ground with the feeling, and it never quite lands. I have felt anger, resentment and numbness. I have felt alone and misunderstood over the past few years as a consequence of my mum’s death. But it distresses me that I can’t name the cause of her death, that there is no tidy narrative or clear answers.
The inarticulable loss of my mum has also focused my research on the mental health impacts of climate-related disasters.
The death of my mother might not seem obviously connected to my job as a public health researcher, but the mourning caused by the losses from climate change are comparable to the ways in which losing a loved one feels. I’m not drawing any kind of equivalence between the grief and trauma of losing a parent and losing your entire life and livelihood after a disaster. Nevertheless, grief and feelings of loss permeate many experiences we go through. Whatever the source of grief and loss, my personal experiences have taught me that we need to process and accept these feelings for the sake of our mental and physical health.
Grief, defined one way as “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss,” can be applied to the feeling after losing a loved one or losing a sense of home and place after a disaster. In both ways, we lose something we can never get back. Grief is a consequence of the natural cycle of life and death, but can be exacerbated by negligence and unjust approaches to climate change. And how we rebuild is also a function of the support network we have around us, as well as the resources we have and the timing of the events. But the resources we have to cope with grief are often dependent on circumstances outside of our control.