By Michelle Ruan, 17, Alhambra HS
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Michelle says it's OK to feel confused when someone dies, because everyone reacts differently.

Dec. 12 was a Saturday and I had the ACTs in the morning. During a break, I made small talk with the girl in front of me who was from South Pasadena High. We complained about the rain and named the people we knew from each other’s schools.

That Monday, I opened the Los Angeles Times and read, “Teens tried to revive South Pasadena student but ‘he was not responsive’.” I remembered Saturday’s conversation and wondered if I knew the student who had died. As I read the story, my hands began shaking. Aydin Salek was the name of the student who had passed away on Saturday from possible alcohol poisoning. He had gone with friends to a party in Altadena that was advertised on Facebook. Bits of Saturday’s conversation began to float back to me.

“Oh, and I know Aydin Salek,” I had said.

“How can anyone not know him?” The girl answered.

I sat back against my chair trying to calm myself down. I didn’t even know Aydin well. I only knew him through state Senator Gilbert Cedillo’s Young Senators program, which we both were a part of. The last time I had seen him was nearly two months ago when we attended a meeting. The image of his face was still clear in my mind; his loud laugh that I heard from across the room, and his hand, which was always up before everyone else, to answer and ask questions.

The Los Angeles Times shows the memorial created by Aydin Salek's classmates after his death.

Who would’ve known that in such a short time he would die?

It started to make me think about all the people I knew who had died during high school. There was the senior who had committed suicide my freshman year and the three girls who had died my junior year. One had committed suicide, another had gotten caught in a gang shooting as she walked home from the grocery store, and the third was in a car crash. I hadn’t known them personally either. Sometimes I wonder if they had lived longer, could we have become friends? I had the same thought about Aydin. We’d only exchanged handshakes and talked a few times but I kept thinking that at the next meeting or the one after that, we could’ve maybe started exchanging small talk and eventually had a conversation.

On the news Monday night, as I watched the students, teachers and Aydin’s parents at his memorial, I felt an ache in my throat. Watching them going through such a hard time made me want to cry too, but the tears didn’t come. I tried to stop thinking about his death because the next day most seniors got their early decision replies from colleges. It was difficult to see my friends be happy or sad about their letters because I couldn’t help thinking how unfair it was that Aydin had died so young.

I couldn’t understand why I would feel sad whenever I thought about Aydin. I kept repeating to myself that he was just a stranger. I didn’t want to think about Aydin anymore because every time I did, I thought about all his lost opportunities. I didn’t want to think about how everything can end so soon.

We had a Young Senators meeting a week after his death. The program coordinators talked about Aydin. They passed out copies of Aydin’s biography that they had printed from South Pasadena High’s website. They talked about what a wonderful student he was; he was a student leader, passionate in what he did and wanted to be a lawyer. The girls from Aydin’s school began to tear up when they read the biography listing the dates of his birth and his death. But just like me, most of the people hadn’t known Aydin that well. We just stared at the paper on the table, unable to think of anything we could say. 

They brought in grief counselors who talked about the dangers of drinking. The counselors then shared their own experiences. One talked about his near-death experience with alcohol binging. He said he couldn’t stop until he had to take a court-mandated class on the harms of drunk driving. Taken down to the L.A. Coroner’s office, he had to listen to “a very long lecture.” When the coroner rolled in the bodies of drunk drivers, the first one they unveiled was his cousin’s. The counselor recounted how shocked he was to see his own cousin lying on the metal gurney, naked and dead. The worst part was that he was the first person in his family to know that his cousin was dead because he had crashed into a tree just a few hours earlier.  

“Sometimes a tragedy teaches you a lesson,” he said, ending his story. Though I tried not to, I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. Taking deep breaths, images of everyone I was close to who had died flashed through my mind. Teachers, classmates and family members. The most prominent image was my grandfather, who had died of stomach cancer in China. I hadn’t been told until a week after his death. I couldn’t cry because it felt so unreal. I remember telling myself that it was better I didn’t cry because my grandfather would’ve been happy to be freed of all the pain he had endured during the years he had cancer.

All of the counselors knew people who had died from alcohol-related incidents. One woman said that after her friend died in a car crash, she carried a photo of her on her keychain as a remembrance because she was scared to lose anything more of her friend, even the memories. She said a lot of people told her to move on and throw the keychain away, but she told them no because she dealt with her grief by remembering her.

I especially liked how one counselor said it was OK to cry. “Nothing bad can come out of crying and it can actually make you feel better.”
The grief counseling helped me understand that it’s OK to not know how to react to something as tragic as death. Watching all the counselors share their own stories of having to deal with death, but not knowing how to do it well, made me feel better that I wasn’t the only one with these feelings.

Even if I didn’t know Aydin well, I still felt something. He was a person who I had talked to and maybe we could’ve been friends. Aydin wasn’t just some random name the reporters on the nighttime news spoke. I realized that even if I didn’t know Aydin well, it didn’t mean that his death hadn’t affected me.

Aydin is gone; he’ll never again sit in those Young Senator meetings with me or laugh that memorable laugh. It’s hard letting someone go, even if it’s someone you know casually.

Aydin’s death made me realize that anyone can die tomorrow or even two months from now.

I know there will be more to come. But it doesn’t mean I have to be so terrified of it. It’s OK to cry, even if it feels weird, because we still feel something. I didn’t realize it before but now that I know, I’m glad I learned how to grieve.

Click here to read Jennifer Kim’s story about how she reacted when her classmate, Aydin Salek, died.