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Life after loss

Something definitely felt off that morning.

The day before the DLSU College Admissions Test, I woke up sensing an ominous weight fill the air. A high school teacher had posted something that implied the passing of someone close. A few hours later, I received word from my classmates that the one who died was our English teacher.

We were devastated. He was 25—much too young.

He was an excellent teacher, wise beyond his years and constantly thinking of ways to improve the school and society. Never showing any signs of weakness, he was always the image of an ambitious and determined individual with dreams of changing the world, at least until the last few weeks of his life.

As someone likely to pursue medicine in the future, I still find myself enraged by the lack of a proper diagnosis—after finding out too late that the chicken pox diagnosis was incorrect, the doctors still couldn’t figure out what exactly caused the rashes and the physical, intolerable pain. But ultimately it wasn’t really the disease that killed him—he died of cardiac arrest on a hospital bed.

I cannot attempt to convey the depth of distress, the details of what his last agonizing days were like. I think that his suffering was what made the incident all the more cruel. See, when a strong person falters, you wonder where are the heroes in the world.

Our entire batch mourned for several weeks. His first year of teaching was the same year we entered high school. I was part of his homeroom class for two years and part of our batch organization, of which he served as adviser for two years. He had essentially watched us grow up, yet he didn’t get to see any of us graduate.

Before he passed away, I had also worked with him on a research paper for DLSU’s research congress. He was the one who pushed me to do more, never thinking that I was trying too hard; it meant a lot to a kid who was still trying to find her place in the world.

I don’t think I thanked him enough. It’s a recognition that many a bereaved person encounters with a host of regret, realizing how caged we are by the ticking clock, the ever-expanding to-do lists, and the desire to keep up with a rapidly-spinning world.

No one is ever really prepared to deal with loss. The brain is an organ difficult to tame; I admit that sometimes the pain resurfaces out of nowhere. In situations like these, the usual reaction is to chide oneself for “not healing” and for allowing the grief to still be a debilitating force.

For the longest time, such was my response; I was still reeling from the loss, if only because I never truly confronted the reality of his passing. I hadn’t given myself the proper chance to process it out of fear it would drag me into the void. The misery was vivid, yet faint at the same time. It was at once an awareness—but also an even more conscious attempt to suppress it.

But nowadays I’m less averse to facing the memories, keeping in mind what another teacher had said to me after the incident: “It is only when you stop feeling, that you stop being human.”

By the time this gets published, it will have been three years since his passing. I will perhaps never think the situation fair—death never is—but acceptance of reality has come in its own time.

Writing can be a form of catharsis—a process of clarification—and it is a wonder that I have only now taken the time to compose this. What I’ve realized, and what I hope more people realize, is that it is never a race to be the first to declare “I’m okay.”

The important thing is that gradually, and with a lot of courage, we allow ourselves the realization that the past is not for living in.

Fragments of the souls that have since left the living world never really fade away: old clothing, picture frames, books passed down. As much as we try to avoid it, we inevitably encounter recollections of their lives even in the intangibles, like when their favorite song or TV show comes on, or we come across a subject or advocacy they were heavily invested in.

But the question becomes not whether we will encounter their memory, but what we do when we are reminded.

Too often we are immobilized by the past, afraid of entering a future without their presence. Instead must come the realization that traces of their light can always live on, remaining with us if we so choose.

We try to carry out their legacies, embedding their story within our own. The ideologies he had imparted to us are principles I still live by—teaching us to be critical, to be diligent in every endeavor, and to use what finite time we have to shape a better world. Perhaps sharing his beliefs with others and relaying the deep-seated impact he made on my life can help change the world into something more attuned to what he had envisioned for how society ought to run.

We bring vestiges of their life forces with us, recognizing that these memories and experiences, even painful ones, remain an integral part of who we choose to be at present and in the future. Such acknowledgement allots us the space to heal, to move forward—not to forget, but rather to remember.

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