I remember the day so clearly, June 2009. I was already counting down the days till school finished for the Summer, I had a lot of plans with my friends and then boyfriend and was intending to enjoy every bit of my holiday, to do that I had to make sure all my school work was completed. Back then I thought that the worst thing that could happen that summer was to have left over schoolwork that would mean I couldn’t go out everyday. My god do I wish that that was actually the worst thing to have happened.
I used to be very religious, not in the sense that I went to church every single day or anything, I read my bible frequently, I had until recently gone to church on Sundays, I prayed, I believed. Religion was a big part of my upbringing, my family and therefore my life. I always believed that God had bigger plans for me that his intentions went far beyond what I could imagine, even beyond what any of us knew. Whenever I’d argue with my parents, I’d pray, whenever I was having trouble at school, I’d pray, whenever I was just generally so happy I couldn’t contain it, I’d pray.
My family in the Philippines is religious; they took it to another level than we did when we moved to the UK. Their belief pretty much gave them all the drive to continue and power through the difficulties they faced. My family, well, they didn’t always have the greatest opportunities but their faith gave them the will to try harder and push harder and love harder.
The power of faith was evident in my Uncle Romeo. He was a loving father of 5 who had tragically lost his wife, the love of his life, the mother to his children sometime in 2005. My Uncle Romeo had battled a long life of illness such as tuberculosis and despite the bad hands that he had been dealt in life he remained firm in his belief that God had bigger plans for him and his family. I remember visiting him and his wife shortly before she died. They lived in a very small house, with no curtains, wallpapers, the things that you would probably consider as just a way to decorate was a luxury for them, but still they treated it like their castle. Despite their poor life they were happy and content, they shared what little they had and were so hospitable to us. As a thank you my Mother wanted to furnish their home, with basic household furniture like a bed and sofa, my Uncle was so humble that he tried to refuse, despite this my Mum insisted. My Uncle Romeo was so grateful, so shocked, so at a loss for words, and it makes me feel guilty thinking about furniture I’ve carelessly tossed aside to make room for new ones I don’t need. His gratitude for something you and I may consider as just chair or just a bed was enough to rip your heart to pieces. But that’s the kind of person he was, just so happy, with no expectations but still so thankful for every passing day and small blessing. I remember looking at my uncle and his wife and seeing the love they both had for each other and for their children. The one thing I know is that they were not just parents who told, they did too. They worked hard to provide for their family and made sure that their work ethic was instilled in their children. Even if they had not had an easy life so far, they were determined to give their family a better life.
Unfortunately in trying to do that My Aunty Jovet, suffered a fatal heart attack. At a young age it was clear the hard life had taken its toll and she passed away so suddenly and tragically leaving behind her devoted husband and devastated children.
We were back in the UK when this happened and was not able to be with our family during that difficult time. Like a coward I was sort of glad because I understood how difficult the situation was and how they must have been struggling to cope with the loss. We all loved her, but I couldn’t imagine the kind of pain you go through when you loose your mother. Every kid needs their mother, to teach them how to do their hair, how to cook their favourite meal, to vent to when Daddy is being too strict, everyone needs their mom.
The years passed by and we finally went back to the Philippines. A lot had changed and my Uncle had moved his family to our hometown to be with the rest of our family. He had found a new lady, who already had a small son and so their family grew. We loved the addition to the family, and were so glad to see him so happy again. That summer went by so quickly, I spent a lot of time with my best friend/cousin, Anjong, my uncle’s son. We got up to a lot of mischief and would squabble like siblings; my Uncle would try to intervene but was always on my side. I got reacquainted to long lost relatives, but also got closer to my Uncle. In a really weird sense, I got to know him much more than I had with my other relatives that summer. I guess it was because I found a connection with him and his new wife. I would gossip with them about my crush (who they happened to be close to as well). My uncle would give me advice and teach me empowering thoughts and prayers. I remember that on the night before we were due to go back to the UK; I sat down and talked to my Uncle one on one. I don’t know why but this time I felt uncomfortable, I can’t explain it but I just felt unsure of everything, like I felt something bad but couldn’t figure out why. We had talks like this before but this time he talked about his deceased wife. He said how much he loved her and showed me his tattoo of her name. I just felt this sadness wash over me as I listened to him talk about how despite the pain of loosing her he felt positive life would be better soon. That his new wife filled him with love and made him happy. How he planned to start a business and talked about what he could do. That when he had enough money he would build a house for his family. New beginnings he kept saying, I looked into his eyes and knew he honestly believed he would do that. Like I said this whole interaction just didn’t feel right, like I just knew something bad was going to happen, but I don’t know why. He said to me he was going to miss me, and that he hadn’t seen Anjong this happy in a long time. He asked me if I could come to see him before we left and I promised we would. But I didn’t.
I don’t know why but I just felt afraid, not of him…I was just scared and I still don’t know why or of what.
The last time I spoke to him was on the phone and he said ‘you never said goodbye.’ I wasn’t sure how to reply to so I made up some bullshit like I didn’t know where he was and handed the phone back to my Mum.
Fast forward to that day in June 2009. I received a phone call from the Philippines early in the morning. I had an exam so I let the phone ring out. After my exam I had noticed another missed call. I thought it was weird because it was usually my Mum calling our family but if they did call, they would call my Mum, not me. I was concerned but that feeling was shortlived, I figured it must have been important enough to call about that’s why they tried to reach us but that my Mum was probably who they wanted to talk to anyway, I didn’t bother to call back instead I texted my Mum (who rarely read her text messages) and told her to contact our family. Then I went on with my day not even giving those phone calls another thought.
My Dad picked my sister’s friend and I up from school (we had this kind of carpool agreement going with her family). I don’t actually know where my sister was this day. I think at some sports game but to be honest that’s one of the few facts I am quite foggy on.
We dropped her off to her house and drove home. When we got to our driveway I noticed my Dad had not gotten out of the car, again I thought it was weird as he was usually eager to get inside, but didn’t think too much of it. As I went to get out of the car my Dad called my name. I remained seated, the car felt tense and I cracked a joke to try to ease the tension. My Dad, well if you know him you’d know he’s not a very serious man. He’s a jokester and favors a happy atmosphere than a serious one. My Dad didn’t laugh, he didn’t even smile. He told me he had something to tell me and I laughed. I actually laughed out loud, I thought the whole thing was a joke and was tempted to ask if someone had died. And then he said it.
“Your Uncle Romeo died today.”
As soon as I heard those words I felt numb. I felt nauseated and then dizzy, and I just felt like I was floating and that this whole conversation wasn’t happening. I felt the blood drain from my face and looked to my Dad to tell me he was joking. I couldn’t see it, I couldn’t see my funny Dad, he looked so sad and I just didn’t know how to respond. So instead I opened my door, got out of the car and ran home.
I could smell the food before I had even gotten to the front door. As I entered the house I saw that every surface of the kitchen was filled with food. My Mum was on a cooking frenzy and despite having already made a feast was continuing to cook more. I walked towards her and it was like she was in a trance, she turned to face me and took one look at me, she let out this long groan. A sound I will never ever forget. It was like she had forgotten to breathe and this groan was like the last breath she was going to ever take. Long, low and loud. I ran towards her and she opened up her arms like a little kid needing comforting. We wrapped our arms around each other and just sobbed. I couldn’t tell whose heartbeat was the loudest but in those moments we became one, our grief, our sadness, our sheer and utter disbelief clouded us as we cried and cried feeling like the tears would never subside.
When we finally got to talk she finally told me what happened. The phone calls I had received were not actually related to what had happened, in fact they had called hours before it happened. My Mum finally returned the call after it happened. My uncle did not die. He was murdered. It’s two very different things. Someone intentionally and savagely took away his life. The real kicker here is that his wife was 7 months pregnant with their baby girl.
Dying, you have no control of it, it happens when your time is up. Being murdered is a choice someone makes (whether intentional or not) someone decides to take your life from you. A person takes the most precious thing we own, death by murder is not dying, it’s being robbed of your life.
I cannot speak for any of my family members, or for any other families of murder victims. I can only share my own experience with you, and what I witnessed in my family members. Everyone’s grief is different, every pain differs, it’s not because some hurt a lot less than others, it’s because we interpret and accept loss in many different ways.
Growing up you’re taught how to win, how to loose gracefully, compassion, love, understanding, but the one thing we’re never taught is how to grieve. I guess maybe it’s because one hope for young people is that they experience a minimal amount of loss and the expectation is they will deal with loss much later in life and by then they would have already had plenty of life experiences to help them through it. The truth is whether you’re 9 or 99 grief is difficult, loss is unbearable and there is absolutely nothing that can prepare you for it.
It doesn’t matter if someone has been ill for a long time or dies suddenly, death, loss and the pain it brings with it is so unexpected and can be a difficult thing to process.
I never got to say goodbye, I guess I had the opportunity to a few years before and all of a sudden I became so aware of how I didn’t say goodbye when I had the chance. How he called me out on it and how I had just waved away his disappointment instead of apologizing or talking to him. I suddenly wished back all those opportunities I wasted and the times I should have been a better niece. I became so overcome with grief, emotion, regret and sadness that I hated how shit I was and how I had been selfish. I prayed I could have a re-do just to make it right, so he would have known how much I loved him and how grateful I was for his existence. I couldn’t help think about whether it would have made a difference or not. If it even mattered, if it would make me feel better somehow. In the space of a few hours I had already bargained my soul for a chance to understand or some clarity. I couldn’t understand why it happened, not to my family, to my mum, my cousins, myself. There are no words to express the sadness that washes over you when the sudden realization that you’re loved one is gone hits you hard. They’re never coming back and you can’t stop thinking about all the times you let go by without telling them what they mean to you, hell let me just say it, for not even realizing how much someone meant to you until you can no longer have them in your life, for not knowing the difference they made in your life, for being too late to realize how much you loved them. The heart, so small but so heavy, so full even though it’s shattered. There’s just no way to describe how completely broken you can feel when you loose someone you love, knowing that no matter how hard you cry, pray or wish, they will never come back.
Obviously this murder caused such devastation, for my family in the Philippines and for us. Again I can only speak for myself, I cannot give you an account of how someone else dealt with it unless they want me to, it’s just too much of a personal experience I can’t share someone else’s journey.
I don’t know how I would rate my coping during this time. I grieved a lot.
That evening we had a very good and old family friend have dinner with us. We all sat on the patio, watching the sunset, eating the meal my Mother had cooked and talked about my Uncle. We wanted to make this dinner our celebration of his life. We needed to take a break from crying, we tried to enjoy our meal and in between sobbing managed to reminisce happily about our loving Uncle.
That evening I tossed and turned in bed. At one point I got this familiar fear creep into my body. I hid under my blanket and pretended to sleep but felt like I was being watched. Eventually I felt brave enough to open one eye slightly to see if anyone was there and I saw someone move. The thing is that my house is very old and our floorboards creak, no matter how lightly you’re tip toeing, you will make a lot of noise. But my room was filled with silence, I felt the person continue to watch me but all I could see was a dark shadow by my doorway. Eventually I closed my eyes; I was too scared to do anything. I tried to sleep but I was shaking too much. An hour later my sister ran into my room. She asked me if I was struggling to sleep and I said yes, she asked if I had seen the shadow and I said yes. We both agreed to sleep together in my room. None of us knew what it was but it scared us both. After the struggle of trying to get back to sleep we eventually went downstairs to watch TV. Another hour later my Mum came down too, she had the same experience. To this day we never figured out who was watching us, sometimes we like to think it was our old family friend who came to stay, but he was quite heavy so there’s no way he could have silently gone in and out of our rooms. But that’s the only rational explanation we have. The alternative could be…?
On a scale of normal to abnormal I would say my grieving process became very tiresome. I felt very lost and confused. I struggled to articulate how I felt or what I was going through emotionally and mentally so instead it came out as anger. I just couldn’t quite get in touch with my emotions and on the rare occasions when I could, I just couldn’t share this with my family. I felt so cut off from everyone else and this new reality because a makeshift prison in my head. I was tired, confused, I felt alone and lost. My belief in god and all things holy was shattered and I felt like I had no path anymore. At first I was praying but then I had this realization that God allowed a man to take away my Uncle’s life so soon after his wife passed away. This not only left behind a grieving widow, his 5 children, her young son who had looked to him as a father figure, but also an unborn baby who would have no chance to meet her father. He took away a man we loved, a man who wanted to create a wonderful life for his kids, he was my Mum’s best friend, my best friend’s role model, we never got a chance to say goodbye. For a long time I went back and forth about my faith in God. Some days I was convinced this was for the greater good but eventually my anger took over me. God took away someone we loved, he allowed someone to hurt us beyond what we could do. I could not see what good came from his murder. But my Mum through her grief and depression insisted we needed to keep up the faith. The justice system would say everything we wanted to say. For a while I believed her.
When she went back to the Philippines for the trail, I believed her. When the trail was postponed and the witnesses disappeared, I believed, then one day I sat up watching the stars and I felt that presence had disappeared. When that presence disappeared I felt my rage increase, like this blanket hiding my dark side was unleashed and all the pent up emotions I couldn’t touch before had somehow turned into this angry force in my heart. My anger ran deep, and I just started screaming. I cursed the stars, the sky and everyone beneath and above them. I hated God, I hated Christianity for making me believe, I hated the idea of religion, but most of all I hated humanity. This pain, this hollowness I felt. I wanted to be with my family, I wanted to be with people who shared this grief with me. I wanted to mourn the way everyone else was but all I could see was people being so in tune with their emotions. Me? I would spontaneously throw things, break things but I just couldn’t cry anymore. Aside from anger I could not feel anything, the act of breaking things made me feel like I had some kind of control over something, it gave me this release that I found comforting but still it was like I had cried for so long that I could no longer cry, I had cried myself dry and all that was left was this angry person looking to hurt in something physical rather than emotional. I hated everyone and was angry that for years I had believed in something that could not possible be true. I didn’t think it could be because I couldn’t see the bigger picture. Whilst before this I accepted that I would not know everything, this time I needed to know but I had no answers and therefore I couldn’t know so then I began to reject anything I couldn’t understand.
It was like my heart went black and I just stopped listening to what everyone was saying, I stopped believing.
The thing with grief is if you don’t find a way to cope and manage, then it can quickly escalate to affect other parts of your life. My whole family was grieving and we all had our own processes, because of this we just couldn’t support each other through it. My grief took the form deeper anger, hatred, resentment, and this flowed into how I interacted with other people. I lost friends who couldn’t understand what was happening, mainly because I didn’t tell them what had happened, I was afraid they would judge me and my family, that it would somehow label us as freaks, like we were at fault somehow, and my boyfriend who did his best to try to bring me out of my depression, eventually started drowning with me.
I watched how the devastation of the murder just wiped everyone of their energy, emotions and faith. My parents took out loan after loan and made trips back and forth in order to attend trials that were being constantly cancelled. The witnesses who were promising to attend would suddenly back out and we all just watched as the justice for my Uncle vanished. The possibility of his murderer being released and walking the streets where my uncle once walked being so real put fear in our hearts.
My grandparent’s health worsened as the stress of the trial mounted. I’ve never been to court, I’ve never seen a trail, I don’t know how long it lasts but pretty soon as people moved forward with their lives and people grew up, several years had already passed and still nothing was happening with the trail. In the Philippines there’s a law that if a trail doesn’t come to a resolve within 5 years it will be closed (I think it’s something like that) the thing with the Philippines is, no matter how wonderful it is and how kind people can be the country is so fucking corrupt. The lawyer my Mum was paying a lot of money to, was also being paid by the murderers family to throw the case, the lawyer told my Mum she needed to pay double in order for him to do his job. Law enforcement had all but released him, his relation to the current town Mayor made him pretty much a free bird, and still we had to continue to watch a lot of money, time and heartache wasted whilst his freedom grew closer.
Still I continued to believe that my Uncle’s death would be avenged in a legal way, that my family’s grief would be able to end with closure.
I saw my Mum work herself to illness trying to find money to pay for lawyers. I watched as my cousins grieved both their parents, and welcome their baby sister 2 months later in the most bittersweet moment of their lives. I watched as my granddad lost himself over the loss of his son. My aunties and uncles mourn their brother. We all lost a piece of ourselves when he was murdered.
When the trail was closed and the murderer was released it was like he was murdered all over again. My Uncle’s family moved back to their parents old home, and everyone continued on with their lives, taking every day as it came.
The safe haven I had considered my home once upon a time became cold and empty. The murderer walked the streets past our family home, taunting my family but remained untouchable because of the fucking corrupt system. Money buys you power in the Philippines, the little people, the hardworking people just don’t have a chance, but still my Uncle believed that in the good of everything, that anything was possible as long as we wanted it enough and worked hard enough.
7 years on, I don’t think any of us really have gone back to how we used to be. I did eventually regain my belief, you know why? Because I was desperate. I figured if God didn’t have bigger plans for us then it means my Uncle was murdered just because, and isn’t that so much worse?
I still don’t know what life is about, I still haven’t seen anything good come from his death that wouldn’t have happened had he lived. My Mum had her faith carry her through her grief and whilst she will always love and miss her brother, she is thankful she has family and friends who can fill that ache she feels.
The devastation of murder is a very complicated thing to explain because everyone is so different and we all deal in our own ways.
I’d like to say I forgive the murderer, because I am a firm believer in rehabilitation, I believe people can make mistakes and are capable of being sorry. I do believe some people regret what they do and truly wish they could take back what they did. These people are capable of leading normal, healthy, sometimes successful lives. Then there are others, like the murderer who selfishly killed my Uncle, the one who knows that no-one can touch him because he is related to a powerful man. One who when faced with the potential reality of living out his days in jail begged for forgiveness and prayed to the same God I prayed to, but then the moment he was released unpunished, taunted, mocked and haunted my family in their safe haven. Right now forgiveness in my heart is non-existence, and someday I hope to find out whether this is ungodly of me or if it’s okay to feel that way.
Someday I hope to find reason and understanding, I hope to find forgiveness for the sake of my uncle. I hope my family gets whatever closure they need. I know that somewhere in this world, my Uncle is walking with the love of his life, comforted in knowing that we loved him and continue to, to this day.
We may have lost the trail, but the murderer will never take away our love for one another. Whilst we can sleep soundly, he will forever have sleepless nights, wondering if he will ever be taken away, or worse. His conscience will never be clean and that will be his own prison.
The devastation of murder is just that. Devastating. But hopefully after all the tears and pain, there can be something beautiful that can come out of it, even if it’s just bringing together a family unit to show their enemies that they can’t be brought down.
Wherever you are Tito Romeo, I hope you can look down on us and see how hard we are trying to make you proud, that we miss you each and every day and as we watch Rory grow into a beautiful little girl, we thank God that you brought her into this world. We are grateful for your existence and for teaching us how to keep fighting no matter what life throws at you. Because of you, we have an unbreakable family.
I have one question for everyone who has made it this far. So sometimes I get bouts of sadness, when I think about what happened, how different life is now because of it, I get so overcome that I just have this break down. I know that is not normal, but is there an expiry date on grief? Is there a normal amount of time to be sad and if that time passes then it’s unacceptable to be sad anymore?
Despite it happening over 7 years ago the wound still feels so fresh, sometimes it’s still quite a difficult thing to overcome. I guess all we can ever do is try to pay back all the kindness and love people show us, try to saturate the world with the light and love we feel in our hearts hopefully that will rid us of evil and bad people for a little while.
Fuck. Why do I feel so heavy with sadness again?
It’s terrible that so many of us want to live in a happy and kind world and the vocal few are stopping us from doing so.
Anyway, don’t forget!
Do something to make your parents proud today, your kids proud someday but most importantly, you proud every day!
Peace and Love