How do you respond when a powerful emotion as grief holds you by the neck?

While we know that each of us will cross “that great divide” (uhh, okay, let’s leave sugar coating behind–we will all die), we respond to news of death pretty much the same way–with shock and incredulity followed by a deep sense of loss and sadness.

Why is this so? Because death is an enemy. It is a disruption of what we have come to know and accept as normal. When something or someone is taken from us that is very much a part of our life, we lose our balance. With the loss, we know that life will never be the same again.

I have written much about this topic. The years past were fraught with news of people close to my heart who lost their fight against the big C. Just last year, a sister in law diagnosed with breast cancer threw in the towel. Now my own brother, the third among us nine siblings, followed suit exactly six months after the first death anniversary of my sister-in-law (my hub’s sister). The common denominator? Both of them lived with us. We talked to them. We ate with them. And we witnessed how strength and vitality slowly ebbed away from their once sprightly physique.

It has been six months now since my brother left us. During his three-day wake, I felt numb –even spaced out. I felt as though everything happened in a whir. I had no time to fully process the emotions that gripped me–incredulity, shock, and deep sadness. I found myself wanting to squeal or wail but somehow, I couldn’t. They were stuck inside waiting for catharsis.

Oh, how I wanted time to stop.

Grief, I’ve only come to realize, is a powerful, debilitating emotion. It feels like there’s a knife that’s stuck in my heart and pierces it, every time I think of my brother. Up to now, I still can’t
believe those calls that always started with “Ting…” (short for Titing, my fam’s nickname for me) have ceased for good.

And while we are powerless to take back what has been snatched from us, albeit painfully, I am consoled nonetheless that I have my memories with him that I can cherish and hold in the deepest recesses of my heart.

Our Pan

I call my older siblings by their first name. Except for Kuya Jun (who bribed us and paid us every time we’d call him kuya), this practice did not make us less respectful of our older siblings.
Pan was the third. Tay wanted him to be a veterinarian. He studied at the  then Gregorio Araneta University in the upper quartile of his class. When he took the board exam in 1982 without enough preparation time, he clinched the tenth place among thousands of examinees nationwide.

I was only 10 years old when he moved out of our family home to start a family of his own. A few months after earning his DVM diploma, he married his college sweetheart in a modest ceremony, which, I clearly remember had Lechon Baka (yes, a young calf was sacrificed) as the highlight among the food served to the wedding guests. It was a double celebration of sort – his wedding and his being the tenth placer in the 1981 Veterinary Board exam.

They rented a small apartment near the public school my twin brother and I were attending. And in the months that followed, I would often find myself frequenting their place to have a taste of the yummy leche flan my sister-in-law would offer me and my twin. This would become a routine for us—to satiate our sweet tooth—young as we were and always craving for delicious treats.

A Loving and Generous Brother

Pan was a loving son and generous brother. While he married young at 26, it felt like he never left the family home at all. He would visit us any time of the day, and always on special occasions like Christmas, Fiesta celebrations, and birthdays, he would show up at home with trays of eggs and several heads of broilers and layers to make sure that we had something to partake of or serve to unexpected guests.
He was not sparing when it came to finances too. He had sent two of my older siblings to college while at the same time raising a young family. I was also a recipient of his generosity. When I was graduating from college, he offered to buy me my college ring and suggested that instead of getting the 15 karat, I should opt for the 18karat. (Yes, I still wear that college ring).

Growing up, I remember that he would always treat us (meaning, any member of our family) to Oyster Restaurant in Naga City where he would order his favorite (and which has also become my favorite) dishes –Pork Liver Steak and Pancit Guisado. A restrained eater, Pan never put on extra pounds though despite the fact that he loved to be surrounded with food.

When I think of him now, I remember with fondness all the time that I had spent with them either in their family home in Naga City Subdivision where (even when I was already married and had kids) he always opened their bedroom for my family’s “invasion.” He would personally cook his favorite viand– Sinigang na Talakitok or Malasugi, laced with lots of cabbage, and share it with us for lunch over talks of conspiracy theories and esoteric knowledge he’s read either from paperbacks or online resources.

A Brother of Perpetual Help

He was the first person you could count on in times of crisis. When a family member would hit rock bottom, he was a big brother willing to bail out a sibling from his dire situation in whatever way he could –with his moral and financial support.

In the late 80s, when I was studying in Naga City as a high school student, he gathered all of us siblings (including the married ones and their families) in one house so we could all be together under one roof. At the same time, he decided to operate an animal clinic so he could practice his profession as a veterinarian.

Yes, Pan took his role of being our big brother seriously—and with aplomb. He was always present for us—for all of us– in any season of our life.

When I got terribly sick in 1990, he went all out to support my parents seek cure for my illness. He accompanied Nanay and me to Manila where I was taken to hospitals (Heart Center and St. Luke’s) and even to faith healers, for treatment.
During the time I felt so down and miserable, he encouraged me not to give up. He let me read his fave poem, ‘Desiderata’ to remind me that with all its “sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”

A Survivor, He was

Pan’s life was not without its share of challenges and crises. He survived a robbery attack inside his in-laws’ residence. He warded off an attempted homicide which happened in the mid 80’s by wrestling his attacker, making into full use his rodeo skills during his vet med days. At the time, I was with my mother when his friend and companion escaped from their aggressors and rushed directly to our place—informing us that a gun was pointed at my brother. We were shaking uncontrollably in fear for his life, but not long after, we saw him arrive and hugged my mother tightly to allay her fears. He said he escaped after knocking his attacker down.

He got his left knee broken, and his clavicle, too, by accidents. He was not immune to pain, whether internal or physical. For a time, he also struggled to keep himself sober. Thanks to Nanay’s pleas, he later dropped both booze and smoking, and for many years kept a clean lifestyle.

Thus, it all came as a shock to us, to learn one day that he was about to face the hardest battle of his life: A tumor was found in his lungs and the prognosis was grim: Small Cell Lung Cancer—the most aggressive among the types of lung cancer and most often detected after it has spread extensively. And true enough, it had been a rapid downhill since the diagnosis in the last quarter of 2018.

On the suggestion of his doctor-son, Bons, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation sessions. Leaving his family home in Naga City, he stayed with us for several weeks during his hospital trips and therapy sessions at Lung Center and Asian Hospital. While on treatment, he spent his time productively—by making our backyard lush with edible greens. The ever farmer that he was, he made sure we had Sili, Kalamansi, Talbos Kamote, Kangkong, Talong, Ampalaya, Papaya, Ginger,and even Lubas (whose sour leaves are used for boiled dishes) for our picking. And yes, we did enjoy the fruits of his labor long after he’s left us on October 19, 2019.

The last time I saw him alive was on the third week of September 2019 ( a close three weeks before he died) when we had an impromptu family get-together at their residence in Naga City. He seemed surprised when we showed up without his knowledge. He was already frail-looking and his ashen face betrayed his claims that he was already okay. He never wanted us, especially Nanay and Tatay (both in their twilight years of 86 and 93, respectively) to worry over his health. Over a huge bowl of Sinigang na Bangus, a bilao of Pancit Malabon, some cakes and cones of ice cream, we gathered together for what would be our last meal with him.

On October 19, 2019, while our family was on the way home from a business-related trip to Baguio, we received the saddest news we could ever receive in our lifetime:
Pan, our ever dependable brother, finally breathed his last.

It has been six months now, but the ache still lingers. Even now, I can’t still make sense that he was reduced to a lump of ash inside a small plastic bag and stuffed in a metallic urn box.

Gone are the calls. “Hello, Ting. Kumusta na kamo diyan?”

Gone are the constant croons. “I see trees are green, red roses too…”
                                                  “It’s now time to make a change, just relax, take it easy..”

Gone are the banters and the silly laughter. “Tubud-tubod, diyan!”

On the day he was cremated barely a week after he died, I witnessed what would be the saddest scene, I ever witnessed:

That of my aging parents saying goodbye to their favorite son.

That of my inconsolable mother touching what remained of the son she dearly loved—now reduced to but a kilo of dust.

The sight was enough to pierce even the hardest of hearts.

Hope for the Grieving

If it were not for our hope in Christ, the death of a loved one could break our soul beyond repair. But I take comfort that this broken fellowship with the dearly departed is but temporary.
I also have come to realize that no one can ever escape his mortality. It is still the great leveller—rich or poor, learned or simpleton, drop-dead gorgeous or hideous-looking— all will go the same route: face the grim reaper.

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.

“Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
without knowing whose it will finally be.

“But now, Lord, what do I look for?
My hope is in you. -Psalm 39: 4-7

Only Christ who overcame death can give us the same victory over its sting. And it is only he who can heal the depth of our pain in times of grief.