Culture-Bound Syndrome and An Untimely Death



My sister and I were in a hurry.

Our mother was home from the hospital after vomiting and experiencing loss of vision and speech impairment. According to our neighbor, it was due to balis.

In Filipino psychopathology, balis is a domineering person’s capacity to cause another a bout of nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, flatulence, headache, or dizziness. This culture-bound syndrome is related to the Spanish people’s concept of mal de ojo, a curse believed to be cast by an evil eye. Only that, in balis, the carrier does not necessarily have an evil eye, only a strong personality. Additionally, the carrier may bring bodily harm to another without any intention of doing it. Balis victims must only have weaker personalities than the carrier to suffer from the common symptoms.

My aunt delivered the great news. Her successive light tap on our arms roused us from sleep. My sister and I stayed with her while our eldest sister, who was 13 then, joined our other relatives in rushing our mother to the hospital. I was only 7 and my older sister was 10.

It was early morning, around 4 a.m. My sister and I put on our slippers and ran passed four houses and two vacant lots to get to our house. We were so excited we forgot to gargle some mouthwash or to fix our hair. We didn’t even bother to check if we have crusty gunk in the corners of our eyes. We were elated to see the flicker of a tinghoy, a kerosene-based lamp, hanging by our main door. Our mother and big sister were back home indeed!

I noticed a number of pairs of slippers scattered by the cement pavement where our house’s bamboo-made ladder stood. There seemed to be a lot of people inside the house, but it wasstair-clipart-royalty-free-stairs-clipart-illustration-1158720 (1) utterly quiet. We dragged our feet up to our porch, and even the slight squeaks from the bamboo steps were too raucous for the silence. A few steps away from the door connecting the porch and the living room, we saw our mother lying on a folding bed with candles and flowers by her side. She was only 37.

Events Before The Untimely Death

In the afternoon of January 20, 1991, my mother felt dizzy and nauseated. She was sitting on her favorite stretcher chair when her sister who lived next to our house insinuated that it could be due to balis.

Earlier that day, my mother washed all our dirty clothes. Back then, the only available place to do laundry was in the river. To get there, people from our area would walk for 30 to 45 minutes with washbasin on their heads under the tropical heat of the sun.

My aunt reasoned that my mother could have seen someone with balis on her way to the river and back.

My mother summoned her brother in law who was known in our area to be knowledgeable of alternative medicine. He prescribed a concoction of boiled barks and roots of certain trees and herbs for my mother, and she obliged while praying. She remained seated on her favorite chair by our porch. Her sister assured her that she would feel better in a while. She just needed some rest.

When the night came, my mother’s condition became worse. She could not see anything anymore. After that, she started vomiting. She asked my eldest sister to call my Aunt.

I was busy watching the animated series of Ghostbusters, and in my seven-year-old mind, I would let the adults take care of adult concerns. I did not bother to ask why my Aunt summoned her brother and his wife and a few of our neighbors. Someone went to the village’s proper to look for a jeepney that could transport our mother to the province’s capital where the hospital was located. Jeepney is the most common form of public transport in the Philippines.

Our neighbors put my mother on a cradle to give her a lift. The jeepney was waiting by the main road. We lived by a hilltop, and the road that connected it to the village proper was not paved. It would be dangerous for the jeepney to go up where we live during night time.

Before my mother’s speech became impaired, she gathered my siblings and I for a prayer. She asked God to extend his comfort and care for us in case she would not make it. My two sisters were crying while I was pre-occupied with the number of scenes I’ve missed from the Ghostbusters series.

The Hospital Stay

Snot, tears, and saliva were dripping from my sister’s face. The school uniform blouse she was wearing teemed with the foul-smelling combo. The doctor on duty said our mother had a 50/50 chance of survival. And if she made it, she would be paralyzed.

Our father was working for a domestic shipping company from another province, and he had no idea what was happening. All he knew was our mother had been hospitalized and we needed money. He would be home as soon as he could.

Morning_Sunrise_In_Marinduque_IslandMy family hailed from an island province in the Southern Tagalog region in the Philippines. It was a relatively poor province. According to the Philippines Statistics Authority, the island province had a 29.4 percent poverty incidence rate among families in 2012, a little higher from the national figure of 22.3 percent. Given this number, the province was able to make significant strides economically compared to what it used to be in the 1990s. Back then, it was one of the poorest provinces in the country.

The province’s poverty was very evident in its health care services. The provincial hospital was not just understaffed; it also lacked the necessary facilities and medical equipment to provide emergency care. According to my eldest sister, nurses and doctors were only visible to her on two occasions – when our mother was admitted and when she was already dead. Doctors, nurses, family of confined patients and their visitors passed them by while our mother was in the throes of death. She was lying on a hospital bed by the walkway. Only when my sister screamed for help in fear that our mother was already dead that nurses and doctors ran to them and took note of her time of death and other data needed for her death certificate. As of 2013, the province of around 228 thousand population had one 100-bed provincial hospital and two smaller district extensions.

Grieving With Grace

Late afternoon of January 23 in 1991, my father came home. It was when he was asking our mother to wake up and get up from bed in between painful cries that the pangs of death hit me. I suddenly forgot my pre-occupation with Ghostbusters and the other popular animated series that time, Ewoks. It sank in that our mother would never come back anymore and my siblings and I would be on our own from that day onwards.

Suddenly, we were like a chorale belting in a four-part harmony. Our father would make a euphoric holler while my eldest sister would croon in a soprano wail. My other sister would answer in her raspy, alto cry while I did second voice for each one of them, thinking about Ghostbusters and Ewoks once in a while.

My sisters and I approached grieving differently. My eldest sister gathered all the documents in the main closet in the master’s bedroom. She kept all those we needed and burned those she thought had to go and rest in peace with our mother. My other older sister was busy looking for anything red. She was scared that our mother would visit her before the 40th day of her passing, and someone told her that red clothing was repugnant to ghosts. It was an accepted belief in our province that dead souls wander for 40 days before going to hell or heaven. To the Catholics, purgatory is another destination. After our mother’s burial, my older sister wore a red sleepwear and used red blankets and pillowcases. She also put a broom by her side whenever she slept. A relative told her that ghosts were repulsive to brooms.

Meanwhile, I looked for anything that would rightfully remind me of my mother. I planned to make a memory box, put all the great finds in it and keep them as long as I live. I found an uneaten, big green guava on our old stereo turntable. Some neighbors suggested that my mother should consume it to counter balis’ symptoms. However, her continuous vomiting did not give the guava a chance to display its therapeutic property. I thought it would be a great find for the memory box. But while I was staring at my guava find, I changed my mind. My tummy was volunteering to be my very own memory box, and I concurred. I decided to eat all the edible finds that reminded me of my mother. I assured myself that by doing so, I would be bringing my mother’s memory with me wherever I go. Actually, I only looked for edible finds and stuffed them in my digestive system. I was happy and full.

After a couple of days, our father was back to his old self. He stopped crying and started engaging with the throng of people in our house holding the Filipino burial custom lamay, a weeklong vigil held by the dead’s family members, relatives, friends and visitors.

Our father was convinced that our mother would be dejected when she saw us disheartened by her passing. He wanted us to celebrate our mother’s life. The days and nights after that, we would share jokes and fun memories with our mother and join other children for varied games. We were jubilant until our mother’s funeral. Though the spirit of mourning visited us once again during the funeral service in the church, it did not last. In general, everybody’s mood was festive, reminding each other that our mother was in a better place.

Coping and Healing

While we could decide whether we would be sorrowful or joyful during our mother’s wake and funeral, it was not the case with coping and healing. The transition was not as easy as we thought.

Our father had to leave us under the care of our relatives to be able to secure a relatively decent-paying job. Growing rice and coconuts and fishing were the primary sources of income in the province. These were far from father’s job duties in the roll-on/roll-off vessel.

However, our father’s line of work meant there would be birthdays, Christmas and New Year that we would be on our own. Also, there would be school works we would do all by ourselves; cold, flu, and boils we would mend without adult supervision; and dreams and triumphs we would barely celebrate. For our young age, they were challenging. But as years go by, we learned to get used to our living set-up.

Gardening had become an escape for my eldest sister. She loved gardens and landscape design projects. She made flower boxes surrounding our house and grew them with different ornamental plants. When super typhoon Rosing ripped and gutted one of our house’s three rooms in 1995, my eldest sister transformed the area into garden beds. Rosing, known globally as Angela, was a category 5 typhoon with 18 mph sustained winds, one of the strongest and costliest typhoons to hit the country.

My other sister would channel all her energy into household chores. They were her solace. She became the house’s director of cleanliness and orderliness, drill sergeant and budget secretary. She would teach me how to wash and fold clothes correctly, mop the floor properly, sweep and rake the yard in a timely manner and maintain a household living expense sheet. She would still wear red outfits and use red blanket at night when needed.

School had become my avenue for coping. I excelled in academics and other extra-curricular activities. School activities and commitments afforded me no time to grieve over parentless childhood and teen years.

Additionally, the family’s Christian faith helped us to always look forward to a better and brighter future. It had been ingrained in our consciousness that regardless of negative circumstances, God’s plan was to protect us and not to bring us any harm.

My siblings and I would memorize Bible verses, sang Christian songs and play pretends. We would attend vacation Bible school every summer and climb a mango tree to get some fruits while on a recess. We would thank God for anything and everything while remembering God’s protection and our mother’s blessings upon us.

My eldest sister pursued a career in teaching while my other sister took up a business degree. I went to the national capital region to pursue a career in journalism. We would gather every holy week in the province. And from time to time, we would have a trip down the memory lane. And in this trip, our father, who never re-married, would get emotional while my eldest sister would still rant about her experience with the provincial hospital’s services. We never visited that place after our mother’s death. It was too traumatic for my eldest sister. We would travel to another province or to Metro Manila for our medical needs.

My eldest sister would always recall how the nurse who checked our mother’s vital signs was on a hurry to send her to the nearby morgue. She did not bother to give my sister another hour to make sense of what had just happened. Probably, another patient would occupy the space our mother had yet to vacate. According to my sister, our mother was still warm when she was placed in a body bag. She would hug the body bag on the way to the morgue. My sister was hoping God would make a miracle and bring our mother back to life. However, the sight of an embalmer ready for the job conveyed that God had no intention to intervene. And she started yowling until her larynx lost its strength.

MOMThere would be days that our trip to memory lane would make us wonder. What if our mother was not given any alternative medicine? What if the hospital did its best to attend to her needs? What if someone had thought of checking her vital signs when she was complaining of nausea? What if we didn’t live on that remote area? What if our neighbors and relatives resorted to sound, medically acceptable first-aid remedies rather than superstitions? What if we were already grown-ups when it happened and had the capacity to decide for our mother’s well being? What if our father was there and we had money ready to pay the hospital for the emergency care? These numerous questions gave us a glimpse to our hearts’ longings – that after all these years, we still hoped our mother’s death story was different.

Before I left for the United States, my sisters and I would look for old photos and remember the stories behind them. We would laugh and cry in nostalgia. We would thank God for the journey. In one of those old photo-hunts, we found a copy of the proof that our mother died in a hospital. Few people in our old neighborhood visited a hospital or a doctor for regular check-up. Most would die in their homes while self-medicating or taking any alternative medicine. Tucked between our old photos, inside a dusty translucent white envelope was the death certificate of our mother. My eyes were fixed on two particular entries that read:


6. Date of Death: 22 January 1991

17. Causes of Death
Immediate cause: a. high blood pressure and heart attack


Tears poured.



Photo Credit:

Ladder Clipart - Clipart Panda

Sunrise - Totoyba2


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2 Responses

    I love it!
    • Reinalyn Terrado
      Akala ko kung sinong nagleave ng message, ikaw pala. Haha. Mahalo, Sissy! :)

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