When a profile picture on Facebook turns black, it's a cue that the person lost someone. Condolences pour in the form of "sad" and "care" reactions in place of a hug or a wake visit, which are discouraged to stop the spread of COVID-19.
With no vaccine or cure on the immediate horizon, social media has become a place for mourning. Like many aspects of social life, the pandemic has changed how Filipinos mourn their dead, and rehow they remember them during Undas (All Saints, All Souls Day) when cemeteries are closed.
Grief is now shared over Zoom calls with the bereaved crying from the safety of their homes. Final rites are livestreamed on Facebook, wakes are recorded and shared on Instagram stories, and photos are compiled in Facebook albums for those whose spotty connections can't handle video.
Digital wakes have been around, catering mostly to mourners based overseas. What COVID-19 did was fast-track that shift.
How much has the pandemic changed how Filipinos deal with death?
Facebook, Instagram are the new obituaries
When her mother died in June this year after a bout with cancer, 25-year-old Julienne Balota informed her family and friends about it on Facebook.
In a lengthy post, Julienne wrote an online eulogy, accompanied by sweet photos of her and her mother.
"You did well, my fighter. Thank you for everything. Thank you for being such an inspiration. Thank you for your unconditional love," Julienne she said. "I love you, always and forever."
She changed her profile photo to one that shows her and her mother during a trip to South Korea before the pandemic. And every month since then, she has made it a point to post a photo or two to remember her mom.
"It has been four months since she left but the pain is still there. Losing someone very close to my heart really affected me but I just think that she is no longer in pain," she told reportr.
Like Julienne, Joyce Pasagui also lost a parent this year. Her father died of COVID-19 nearly two months ago and as a way to remember and honor him, she uses a photo of them together as her Facebook profile photo. All of the featured photos on Joyce's Facebook profile are of her dad's too.
"To be honest, I try to stay away from social media as best as I can to avoid seeing things that could trigger my sadness. These could be family photos and videos with Papa in it or posts from people who also mourned with us," Joyce told reportr.
"However, social media did give me an avenue where I can easily talk to people who are far away from me. The kind words and support that our family got from several people, some of them we don't even know, was overwhelming and it really warms my heart every time I think about it," she said.
Unlike other families who lost their loved ones before the pandemic, Julienne and Joyce are among those who are prevented from marking their first Undas without their parents in the traditional manner: with a visit to the cemetery.
Instead of flocking to cemeteries to light candles and offer flowers for Undas, Filipinos were ordered to stay home to avoid the spread of the virus.
"Losing a mother is painful but grieving during this difficult time makes it more painful since there are limitations," Julienne said. "I am sure my mom will totally understand and I believe we can think of other ways to commemorate our departed loved ones."
Undas doesn't have to be at the cemetery
Undas draws hundreds of thousands of people to cemeteries. The government declares it annually as a holiday to allow the Filipino faithful to spend time with their loved ones and honor their dearly departed.
While the prohibition on cemetery visits this year may seem "unfair" especially for those who just lost their loved ones, psychologist and life coach Dr. Ali Gui said the traditions of Undas shouldn't be viewed as the only expressions of love for those who died.
"There is that feeling that it is unfair. Pero ano ba ang unfair? This (Undas) is a ritual act for us every year when we lost our loved ones. These practices come with traditions that were handed down to us many years ago so we equate these traditions and practices as showing love to our loved ones," she told reportr.
"But what is more important? Going to the cemetery or making sure that their memories are alive in our hearts? We should remember our loved ones every day in our hearts--not only during Nov. 1 or Nov. 2."
Because Joyce's dad died of COVID-19, his remains were cremated as part of hospital protocol. His urn stays at their home where he was always a huge presence during his lifetime, Joyce said.
And to mark Undas, she chooses to continue a tradition that her father started--cooking pancit.
"Papa would always cook pancit and other meals that we can offer to our departed family members. This year, I think we will carry out the same tradition especially since there are still visiting restrictions applied to cemeteries," she said. "I just never thought that we'd be lighting a candle for my father so soon."
"We see him in the kitchen cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We see him lounging on the sofa, his feet up while watching TV. We see him in the car, just preparing to exit, holding a bag of fruits for us. Every single thing in this house, reminds us of Papa and that's exactly how we want it to be. We never want to forget him," she said.
Lighting a candle, saying a short prayer, sending a message to a friend or relative are among the many ways one can mark Undas this year, psychologist Gui said.
"Accept that there is a pandemic. This is a very abnormal situation and grieve for the loss. What's important is as we grieve, let us not forget that we should also connect with people," she said. "Remembering our loved ones and keeping their memories in our heart is much more important than physically being there [in the cemetery]."
We grieve, cope at our own pace
Losing a loved one during a pandemic can be a "very traumatic incident" according to Gui as she assured the bereaved that they can take their time to porcess their feelings.
"There is bitterness. But no matter how bitter you are, acknowledge and accept those feelings because that is how you feel," she said. "Masakit mamatayan. Mourning the loss of someone we love takes time."
With less than two months since her father died, Joyce admitted that there are still days when she wants to break down and cry.
"To this very day, I still can't comprehend and accept what happened to Papa. People always tell us that everything will be okay and just stay strong but while I appreciate the thought, it is always easier said than done," she said.
"I guess my important message to people who are going through the same thing as me is that allow yourself some space to grieve despite the difficulties of doing so brought by the ongoing pandemic. Your feelings are valid so grieve however you want to," she added.
For those who are having a difficult time moving forward from their loss, Gui advises being intentional. "Don't do it all of a sudden because you might have cold turkey. Be intentional. When you say that you're going to do this by a certain time, do it. Be intentional in coping," she said.
"The way to cope is really to understand that grief and loss is very important and we have to acknowledge it and that it is really very okay to be hurt."
For Julienne, she hopes that the pandemic situation improves by next year so that she and her family could visit her mother's grave and have a traditional Undas.
"Coping from the pain of losing a loved one is very difficult but I know in time we will all get better," she said.