Sandy was 5 years old when she watched from a window inside their house how her father got killed. She could not speak for two months after that. Nanay Jane’s children, Anna, Sam, and Noel, weren’t there to see their Tatay Fred and their brother Jake die the night that 15 masked and armed men forced entry into their house and killed them, but the blood stains on their walls, the bullet holes on their chairs, and the mattress that was dripping wet with their father’s blood were enough reminders of what happened. “Paano ka hindi maiiyak (How can you not cry)?” asked Nanay Jane during the group sharing. At night, the children either cry themselves to sleep or play on their mobile phones until they’ve exhausted their eyes enough to feel drowsy.
Psychiatrist Maria Cecilia Mallari-Ocampo, a fellow at the Philippine Psychiatric Association, said in an interview that, generally, children who witness these kinds of violence may develop post-traumatic stress disorder. They would usually have recurring nightmares, insomnia, and a replaying of the gruesome scene in their minds. According to psychologist Grace Brillantes-Evangelista, the Chair of the Department of Psychology of Miriam College, it may also lead to learning disabilities, speech delays, and selective mutism as what happened to Sandy.
Brillantes-Evangelista called it a complex trauma, given the many components of what these children had to go through. “Hindi lang basta dying ‘eh (their fathers didn’t just simply die), the cause of death is really tragic and violent,” she said. Other than that, she said these children also need to deal with so many emotions that, given their age and limited cognitive capacity, they may feel but will not be able to comprehend. The fear, the anger, the sadness over the loss of their father, and the confusion over what happened—“putting all of these together, it’s very hard to imagine how the child could continue on with this kind of situation,” she added.
(Children put a "Pusher ako" sign on the dead cat and drew circles around possible evidence lying near the carcass.)
“Bakit kinuha si Papa (Why was Papa taken from us)?” Laura asked Lola Susan, another mother who lost her son to the drug war. “Wala na akong Papa (I don’t have a Papa anymore).” In an interview with Project SOW, Lola Susan said that words like these from her grandchild would often just stun her to silence.
This is one question that the guardians of the orphaned children have all struggled to deal with: how would you explain to this little girl that her father was killed for a crime he was accused of without tarnishing the image she has of her father?
How would you make her understand that her father did not deserve to die that way despite what he did when everyone around her, from her playmates down the street to the President she watches on television, says otherwise?
How could you begin to explain why someone would do such a thing when all her life you taught her that God’s commandments were ‘honor thy father’ and ‘thou shall not kill’?
Dealing with the trauma and grief themselves, the guardians would usually tell the children that their father just left for a long trip, and he wouldn’t be back anytime soon. When some do decide to be honest about it, they no longer elaborate on how or why, opting to explain the situation better as the children grow older and when the incident isn’t as fresh and painful for both of them. For now, they believe it is enough that they are there to guide them, especially as they observe certain changes in the attitudes of the children.
What became common, however, in the aftermath of their fathers’ death is their aggressive behavior. "Sana di na lang namatay si Papa; sana yung pumatay sa kanya mamatay na din (I wish Papa didn’t have to die; I wish his killer would die too),” shared Yana, a daughter of a victim, in one of the processing sessions the children had.
"Galit sila na wala silang magawa, hanggang mura na lang. Minsan napapanuod nila sa TV, nagmumura lang sila. Minumura nila yung mga kapulisan, minumura nila si Pangulo (They’re angry that they can’t do anything, so they just curse. Sometimes when they watch TV, they curse at the police, they curse at the President),” Nanay Jane said in a group sharing about her two young boys’ reaction on the death of both their father and brother. She said that “Tokhang”, “Mamatay ka na (I hope you die)!” and “Papatayin kita (I will kill you)” have already become a huge part of their vocabulary that sometimes they’ll just use it so nonchalantly. For Henry, Lola Kyla, the mother of Ronald who didn’t make it to his wedding, said in profiling session that Henry now wants to become a policeman when he grows up so he could catch the people who shot his father and then kill them.
Because of what happened to these children, Mallari-Ocampo says it is possible for them to see the world as an evil and unfair place to live in. They themselves could develop a distorted perception of good and evil, like having a low regard for life and thinking that killing is the right thing to do for misdeeds. But behind their harsh words and tough exterior, at the end of the day they are still vulnerable children. And vulnerable children have fears.
Having already lost their Tatay Fred and their eldest brother Jake to the 15 masked and armed men who barged into their house one night for a “buy-bust operation”, Noel and Sam have developed a crippling fear of losing their Nanay Jane as well. They hate being away from her so much that when she drops them off to school, it takes every fiber of their being to let go of her hand and not to quit school entirely. Although their sister Anna doesn’t have the same problem with going to school, Nanay Jane said in a sharing that Anna doesn’t want to feel too happy anymore. “Tama na, tama na (Stop, stop),” she would say when she and her siblings would laugh, afraid that it might bring about an equally depressing moment afterwards. They were all laughing and having fun, after all, when the 15 men came in.
The children have also become hyper-aware whenever they encounter the police, remembering the men who once barged into their house and forever made the police a threatening figure to them instead of one that provided security. “Mama! Mama! ‘Yung mga pulis, andyan na yung mga pulis (Mama! Mama! It’s the police, the police are coming)!” they would constantly warn Nanay Jane just at the sight of them.
According to Brillantes-Evangelista, all these negative feelings have to be normalized. The children are allowed to miss their father, to feel sad, or to feel angry. And even if some children do not show any signs of trauma, or changes in their attitude, it doesn’t mean it did not affect them in any way. Mallari-Ocampo said the child may initially look unconcerned or be in denial until a new psychological trauma comes to uncover the deep-seated emotion.
Despite everything the children are undergoing, something can still be done. According to an interview with Erica Malli, a psychometrician at the De La Salle Santiago Zobel School, a big part of psychological first aid is making sure that the primary needs of the victims are met. Talking about deeper emotional concerns will not be effective if they themselves are too preoccupied with something else: whether it be food, having to relocate to a safer home, or in this context, money to bury their dead family member. She stressed, however, that debriefing must start immediately after such needs are addressed so as to avoid the development of certain disorders that are harder to treat in the long run.
(For one processing session, the children were asked to draw what they thought represented themselves. Rebecca was a bright yellow flower filled with life.)
Of course, the most important thing for the children to receive is love, care, and reassurances from their adult caregivers. But considering that these people can also be experiencing some trauma, Malli says it is better for the child to be processed by third-party individuals like counsellors and psychologists who can help them become more emotionally resilient.
“Strengthen their social skills… ‘yun ‘yung pinaka importanteng skill na kailangan meron sila (that’s the most important skill they need to have) because they need to know how to express themselves well so they can be understood,” she said. Malli added that they should also be taught positive ways to cope with what they are going through.