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Giving her a voice: A daughter reflects on the heartbreaking abuse her mother endured before her murder

"[My mum was] always suffering in silence. She didn't want anybody to see her as anything but strong." Source: Getty Images/Jonas Hafner

Jackie is proud to be her mother's daughter. She reveled in her mother's creativity, tenacity and larger-than-life persona she exuded every time she entered a room. But while Jackie saw her mother’s greatness, she has also come to accept her mother's life as a guide of what not to do.

SBS Filipino's 'Breaking Our Silence' series sheds light on the different forms of domestic abuse, including the experiences of Filipino millennials who suffered at the hands of their Australian partners. This series focuses on the survivors who aren’t just digits in the statistics, but people with compelling stories to tell.

He had gotten violent with her in the car and had hit her head against a concrete wall. She was prominent and accomplished and, it just wasn't a story she wanted out in public. She kept quiet, kept the bruises to herself and only shared some details of her secret with her children. Then, tragedy struck. She lost her life in silence.

This is the story of Joy Bernaldez, a prominent designer from the Philippines. And this is the story of her 37-year-old daughter Jackie, who now wants to give her mother a voice.

* Disclaimer: Certain information in the story may prove distressing to some.

** Listen to their story here.

A whirlwind

Jackie moved to Australia in 2000 as a student and settled into the country after her studies. After getting married and having her first child, her mum Joy Bernaldez, a well-known fashion designer in Cebu, Philippines, decided to move to Australia with two of her three sons so they could be with Jackie.

"I have a dad and I have a stepdad, who my mum was married to for almost 20 years. I was young when they married - I was only 11," Jackie shares, adding, "But they separated and she met someone else."

This someone else was a Maltese national living in Australia whom Joy met online and developed a romance with two months after separating from her second husband.

We knew nothing about him and then all of a sudden, we found out that they got married. I think my mum really liked him. My mum was a PR then and she wanted to help him stay in Australia permanently.

Joy thought the permanence would also extend to the romance that quickly developed between them. However, Jackie shares that things changed when her mum decided to go back to Cebu with one of her sons to tend to her business, prompting her new husband to follow suit.

She was embarrassed

"I didn't see the marriage become problematic [with my own eyes], but I knew about it. She told me. She said her husband started becoming violent whenever they fought."

Jackie remembers her mum calling her the day after New Year's, telling her about an altercation the night before which led to him getting violent with her in the car.

"I asked my mum what she was going to do about what he did, but she told me not to tell anyone because it was embarrassing."

Jackie shares that being a prominent member of Cebu society, her mum was already wary of what people thought about her separation from her second husband and her whirlwind romance with her new one.

My mum pretended everything was okay. That man kept on living with her and my brother," Jackie shares, adding, "Then he hurt her again.

After Joy's husband slammed her head against a wall, she immediately got a CT scan for her injuries. No charges were filed.

"She didn't want to make anything of it. That was the problem.

Like a lot of victims, my mum didn't think she could do anything. It was more embarrassing if she sought help. That was very typical of her - always suffering in silence. She didn't want anybody to see her as anything but strong.

According to Sydney-based psychotherapist Manna Maniago, this self-imposition of strength is common. Culturally, strength amidst difficulty is an understood requirement amongst Filipinos.

"There's still this stigma when we talk about mental health or abuse. We don't want our family [issues] known to others. It's what we call hiya in Filipino or 'embarrassment'. It's a big deal in our community," Manna shares.

Social worker Ness Gavanzo agrees, adding that caring too much about what other people think impedes on a victim's willingness to seek help.

With family violence, your status in the community also plays a big part in whether you speak up or not.

When we lost her

Joy decided not to speak up. Her silence proved to be fatal.

"I spoke to my mum on the morning of December 17, 2011. She told me that she had moved out all of her husband's things. She decided to separate from him," Jackie shares.

It was my son's birthday and she promised she would call me at 8pm. She never did.

By then, Joy was already gone. Joy was shot dead in Cebu in the garage by her husband while her two young grandchildren were in the house. He tried to shoot Joy's son as well, but he managed to escape. With nowhere to run, her husband turned the gun on himself.

It was a murder-suicide. He was gone too so there was nothing we could do.

"When mum died, I was heavily pregnant with my daughter. It was a high-risk pregnancy, so I couldn't even fly to the Philippines when it happened."

Us as we are

Jackie couldn't fly to see her mum. She couldn't seek persecution for the crime. The only thing she could do was seek help for herself.

"It was hard. I never really had time to grieve. I don't remember grieving, but I had therapy for almost a year. It helped.

I couldn't forget. The only thing I could do was accept what had happened. I had to do it for myself. I had to do it so I could be a mother to my baby who was born after mum died.

Her mum's death has been hard on her siblings, especially her brother who was a witness to it.

"I'm the eldest of four. My three brothers have had a difficult time navigating through this. To this day, they can't talk about it. We don't talk about our mum."

However, Jackie has been ready to talk about her. She's been longing to.

She was my best friend. I told her everything. We chatted every day until the day she died.

"I worked for her as a fashion designer. Those times we were working together were some of my most favourite memories. She has had such a big influence on what I do and how I work."

I knew

Joy's influence on Jackie goes beyond work. Through her mum's life, she's learned the role a voice plays in saving a life.

I wasn't a victim, but I knew about the abuse. My biggest regret was not saying anything to anyone. I wasn't aggressive enough to speak up for her and call the police myself. I kept her secret.

Migration agent and domestic abuse advocate Em Tanag knows about keeping secrets too.

A witness to the abuse her mum suffered at the hands of her own father, Em shares, "I saw the abuse and I told myself I would never allow a man to raise his hand to me.

"Now I want others to know that they shouldn't keep the abuse to themselves. If you're a victim or you know someone who is being abused, speak up and seek help right away."

For Jackie, speaking up and seeking help have been the most poignant lessons learned from their family tragedy.

"I hope my generation knows how to better handle abusive relationships. As for me, I've come to know what's acceptable and what's not because of what happened to my mum."

I look at her life and I'm proud of how she lived, but I also take her life as a guide to what I shouldn't do or get into.

"[Sometimes I think,] if my mum just sought help, she might still be alive."

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse, report it to the police through 000 and through the National Sexual Assault Family and Domestic Violence Counselling Line 1800 – RESPECT (737-732).


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