In the first two months of 2018, two Penn students have died, adding to a total of seven who have died this academic year. William Steinberg and Blaze Bernstein were added to the list of Jonathan Lumpkin, Nicholas Moya, Justin Hamano, Brett Cooper, and Henry Rogers. No matter where we look, death has overtaken us. And though I did not know these students personally, I have wondered with each death, “How do we honor those we’ve lost?”
French professor Mélanie Péron emailed me about writing a column for her daughter’s friend, Kalina. Mélanie’s daughter and her two friends, Sasha and Kalina, all eighth-graders at Greenfield Elementary, had organized a drive for first-generation low-income students in Philadelphia.
Kalina died by suicide in December before the project launched. Hereafter, the drive was named “Kalina’s Cabinet,” and it officially accepted toiletry and cash donations until Feb. 2, earning $3,556 as of Feb. 8. The GoFundMe page is still accepting cash donations, and the drive will occur annually.
I am taking the time now to talk about this story and to deviate from my normal subjects for two reasons. First, I want to help someone who has always helped me, and second, I want to show by both example and explanation how we should remember those we lose, even those of us who hardly knew them.
When someone dies, a common consolation is to say that we should “live the way that person would have wanted us to live.” I am not here to say any differently. From all I’ve read this year about those who have left us, the old saying rings true.
I think of the story Mélanie told our class the first day of this semester, how Kalina, a girl who had always helped others, had ended the note she left her friends and family with “F**k Trump,” declaring her convictions to the very end.
I think of Jamie-Lee Josselyn’s commemoration of Blaze. Josselyn wrote, "I can’t help but think about how Blaze’s name is a verb. And not just any verb, one that means 'to burn fiercely or brightly.' That was Blaze. He was active, not passive. He was never complacent. He was funny and sassy."
And those who knew Blaze have worked to keep his spirit alive. Penn Appétit, the food publication at which Blaze was the incoming managing editor, has decided to run its next issue centered around a theme Blaze had chosen, while incorporating several of his articles, recipes, and notes. The Kelly Writers House, with which Blaze was highly involved, posted one of Blaze’s pieces from the Penn Review — Penn’s literary magazine — called “Picking Marbles from Dirt.” Both groups, by introducing the things that Blaze loved to people who didn’t know him, have given everyone a piece of Blaze.
Ultimately, when we live the way someone would have wanted us to live, it doesn’t necessarily mean being the best version of ourselves that we can be, or being good, or whatever other blanket assumption people throw out when they are too lazy to truly consider the concept. It means that we reflect on them as a person, remember what it was that made them individual, incorporate their spirit into our spirit, and ensure that at least their essence doesn’t die.
To live the way someone would have wanted us to live is a grand, beautiful task, because it requires intimate knowledge of the person we lost and acknowledges that they were more than some casualty in the circle of life.
Honoring someone looks different for each person, just as life looked different for each person. For some people, it’s more public, setting up donations in their names, contributing to the charities they loved. And for others, it’s more private, smiling a little more at that lonely person in the corner, being more patient with someone who gets on your nerves.
And that difference encompasses all the true respect.
AMY CHAN is a College senior from Augusta, Ga., studying classics. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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