A Living Grief

Brothers Never to Part

Part of 4 of in
By Giovanny Panginda with Philip Alimoren
Photography by Jessica Park
Jan 01, 2016 | min read
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The loss of his brother was devastating — but Philip found personal and spiritual renewal in remembering Paul’s life.

THE SUMMER AIR WAS COLD and windy in Ocean Shores, Washington, on the last Saturday of July 2014.

As the sun was setting below the horizon, 18-year-old Paul Alimoren, his companions, and their youth pastor were huddled around a bonfire. After a long but fulfilling week teaching Vacation Bible School, the Southern California-based youth group was ready to let loose and relax at the beach near West Chance a La Mer.

As the night went on, the girls began walking barefoot toward the water, giggling and gesturing for their friends to join them. The boys were reluctant to go with the girls, but Paul — the one who always got people to bond — eventually convinced them otherwise. Soon, the sounds of laughter and the pattering of feet filled the moonlit night as the friends chased one another across the shallow water.

No one seemed to notice the water growing with more intensity, swelling past their ankles and weighing down their knees. A riptide formed a narrow funnel perpendicular to the shoreline and made a suction movement toward the teenagers. Its powerful current began dragging some of them away from the beach into the deeper ocean, tossing and turning them like a washing machine.

Its powerful current began dragging some of them away from the beach into the deeper ocean.

Paul was the first to realize what was happening. He jumped into the water still wearing his jeans and sweater and managed to tightly clutch the shirt of his 15-year-old sister, Dessa, who was close by. As they made it back to shore, they found some of their friends coughing up ocean water. Paul took a quick mental count: "Where are Litia and Angel?"

Without hesitation, he jumped back into the water to swim towards Litia, who was a few yards away. He reached her just in time — before another wave was about to hit and separate them, Paul pushed Litia toward the shore, and the wave carried her to the shore's edge.

The waves kept coming, though, as Paul turned back to retrieve the last member of their group, his best friend, Angel. Paul grabbed Angel as they both struggled to remain afloat. With the sound of their friends screaming for them, Paul gave Angel one more push toward the shore. The next violent wave hit at 8:30 p.m.

• • •

On the other end of the West Coast, the summer night in Los Angeles was warm and slightly breezy.

Twenty-year-old Philip Alimoren, a 5-foot-7-inch Filipino with brown eyes and black hair, had spent the day with his parents at a company picnic at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. On their way home east toward Pomona, Philip dropped off his father, an accountant, at a client's place to finish some last-minute work. He and his mother continued the drive back home.

The orange and yellow sky, illuminated by the sunset, had just faded into darkness when Philip and his mother reached their driveway and headed inside the comforts of home. It had been a long day and Philip was looking forward to relaxing.

A Living Grief

A sharp ringtone startled him. Philip glanced at the caller ID and wondered why his sister Dessa was calling.

"Can I talk to Mom?"

It sounded as if she had been crying. A little suspicious, Philip handed his phone to his mother. As she began talking with Dessa, Philip saw his mother's calm demeanor quickly change to panic.

"What do you mean? What happened?" Mrs. Alimoren yelled, clutching her chest as if it could slow down her suddenly racing heart. "No, I don't believe it — let me talk to someone else!" Tears quickly formed and flowed down her cheeks.

Philip rushed to his mother's side and grabbed the phone just as she went into shock and her legs gave way.

Philip rushed to his mother’s side and grabbed the phone just as she went into shock and her legs gave way.

"What did you tell mom?" Philip asked. "What happened?"

His sister found the courage to speak again and said, "I can't find him ... I don't know where he is!"

• • •

The water along the Washington coast can be cold and harsh. The chance of surviving in the ocean for more than eight hours is next to impossible. After a certain point, it is inevitable for hypothermia — when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it — to set in.

When emergency responders arrived at the beach that night, they searched for Paul until midnight passed. The Coast Guard resumed the search the next morning, but a thick blanket of fog prevented the use of a helicopter.

Paul's body was never found or recovered. He was presumed dead, and the family had a memorial service on August 15, 2014.

Paul's body was never found or recovered.

Philip barely slept after Dessa's call. About 50 members of his church came over to pray with his family from that Saturday night until the morning. His parents took the earliest Sunday morning flight to Washington, but Philip stayed behind. With the senior pastor away, and the youth pastor still in Washington, Philip was scheduled to lead worship for the morning service. Anyone would have understood if he needed the time off, but Philip felt a sense of duty to serve and worship God — even in the midst of pain. Even in his parents' week-and-a-half-long absence, Philip kept working, taking care of chores, answering media interviews, and making sure things were being taken care of at home. He felt like this was the way he could honor his parents and family during their time of grief.

It leaves one to wonder whether Philip himself had the space and time to grieve. Various members of his church took it upon themselves to act as his surrogate family. They offered him a place to stay for a few days so that he was never alone. However, Paul was very much a part of their families as Philip, and they were also grieving this loss. So Philip found himself in a peculiar situation.

"Through the Holy Spirit, you get to see a peace that surpasses all understanding ... but at the same time, I needed some comforting too!" Philip said. "The funny thing was that I found myself doing more of the comforting. I recited various biblical passages to encourage people and I reminded them that we should be jealous of Paul; he gets to see Jesus before us."

“The funny thing was that I found myself doing more of the comforting.”

Of course, there were times when Philip could not stay strong and needed to be comforted. He would fall into fits of sadness and lose a sense of motivation. Philip thought he could counteract those moments by keeping himself busy, but being busy was a temporary solution that led to a much bigger problem.

"I did as much as physically possible — taking 21 units, being a part of several musical groups plus my job, and driving home each weekend," he said. "I made myself busy in an effort to run from the still and quiet moments where I would think about [Paul]."

His busyness eventually caught up to him and affected his personal relationship with God. "It wasn't until I became so worn out that God got a hold of me and reminded me that I couldn't do everything apart from him." A friend persistently shared the gospel with Philip — not because he wasn't already saved, but because she knew its message was still the best encouragement anyone could hear. Philip found that despite his grief, he could still say with complete honesty that "God is still good; we can love Him."

Philip found that despite his grief, he could still say with complete honesty that “God is still good; we can love Him.”

Paul's death also caused Philip to reflect on how he spent his time and who he spent it with. It did not take him long to realize that he hadn't spent enough time with his family since entering college.

"I felt like my brother and I were close. And my brother and my sister were close. But I didn't really spend a lot of time with my sister," Philip said. "Now that the in-between was gone ... I felt this disconnect [with my sister]."

His parents, who grew more protective in their grief, kept asking Philip to watch out for Dessa. "At first, it was difficult," Philip said. "They always wanted me to be with her, especially when we'd go to the beach. But I began to realize that this provided me with extra time to get to know my sister better." Philip began to regularly call Dessa while he was away at college, take her out on boba runs whenever he was home, and even get to know some of her friends. "My brother was more her spiritual compass than I was, and now that he's gone, I hope that she can see that God is still working something in her life."

A Living Grief

Philip's relationship with his parents also began to change. He grew to be more caring, understanding, and responsible — even learning to recognize that they needed different ways to cope. "They would compile videos of Paul singing and performing, burn them all on a DVD, and pass them out to whoever wanted it. Most of the songs are songs of encouragement or worship — my parents wanted Paul's voice and goofy antics to continue to bless people. They still give them out to pastors or missionaries they meet."

Philip found that his relationship with his parents also changed. He grew to be more caring, understanding, and responsible — even learning to recognize that they needed different ways to cope.

As the oldest, he felt obligated to be home as much as possible to take care of his family, which meant changing his routine to include the 60-mile drive home from his school in Santa Clarita every weekend. Being together in a familiar place allowed his family to grieve together.

• • •

Throughout this period, Philip read a couple of books on grief, which helped him better understand the grieving process. "Part of it was realizing that all the dreams Paul and I shared together had ended," Philip said. "All the plans we made would not come to pass. That was really hard for me to swallow. We had plans to make music, start a business, and help our parents when they retired."

Curiously, Philip found himself taking on aspects of Paul's personality, even adopting how Paul loved on people — often going out of his way to spend more time talking to people and building relationships. "My brother was better at keeping relationships than me," Philip said. "It's not that I was introverted, but as a music major, I spent a lot of time rehearsing alone or with other musicians, and not enough time with the people around me.

Philip found himself taking on aspects of Paul's personality, even adopting how Paul loved on people.

"Paul never talked about other people's relationships. He was right; it causes less rumors and drama. That was [Paul's] thing — he was against rumors and drama in the youth group."

Prior to losing Paul, Philip had the tendency to be more cautious and reserved; now he's more willing to be adventurous and fun-loving. "It's how my brother was," Philip said. "So I guess in trying to preserve my memory of him, my personality has changed a bit to reflect his."

"Knowing that Paul is already perfected in God makes me smile."

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Giovanny Panginda

Giovanny Panginda is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary and serves as the youth pastor of Indonesian Good News Church. He enjoys telling stories and taking photos. See his work at giovanny.exposure.co.

Philip Alimoren

Philip Alimoren is a a 21-year-old Filipino American hailing from Pomona, CA. He is a music major at the Master’s College studying audio technologies, with a minor in biblical studies. When he’s not practicing music, he loves watching superhero TV shows, working out, and drinking Thai tea with boba.

Jessica Park

Jessica Park received her very  rst Nikon analog camera from her dad when she was still young. From the high school darkroom to the Rhode Island School of Design, she honed her craft. When she’s not shooting, you’ll find her exploring a world that’s full of adventure, or cuddling up at home with her husband, their two cats, and trusty terrier sidekick, Rusty. You can find her online at jesspark.com.

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