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This is a picture of me as a child kneeling next to the grave of my friend who died of brain cancer just before third grade. The grave is not finished, as it is just a temporary grave with a panda bear on a bicycle.
This is a picture of me as a child kneeling next to the grave of my friend who died of brain cancer just before third grade. The grave is not finished, as it is just a temporary grave with a panda bear on a bicycle.
Original photo by Jessica Walker
Life > Experiences

Panda Bears, Pain, and Passing: How I Dealt with Loss

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Kutztown chapter.

By: Jessi Walker

On July 29th, 2012, a baby panda was born at the San Diego zoo. This panda was named “Xiao Liwu,” which is Chinese for “Little Gift.” The birth of this panda had significant meaning for my life, as his birth meant more for me than another panda being brought into the world.  It had direct connections to my first grade class and the pain that was brought with it. Xiao Liwu is connected to something very ugly, but also very poetic, part of my life that all started in first grade, when I was put in Mrs. Goodine’s class. 

In first grade, I had a crush on two boys named Logan and Trent. They were identical twins with curly brown hair and brown eyes. We were in the same first grade class, Mrs. Goodine’s class. Logan was the older twin, and he acted more confident and “cool.” Trent was the younger twin, and he seemed younger and quieter than Logan. Trent seemed more sensitive, in a way that was fitting as he was the younger one. This could be shown in their favorite animals at the time. Logan liked tigers and lions, and Trent liked panda bears. Tigers were fierce and loud, but Pandas were soft like Trent was. They both played football together, which is one of their similarities. They seemed like they were planning to do football all throughout school.  I don’t know if I actually had a crush on both of them, but I had a plan that I would find a way to have one of the two boys, or even both if I could. I’m not even sure if I ever even spoke a word to either of them, as I typically was always quiet as a mouse, but I always followed them around like I was a puppy, so in my head they knew I was their friend. 

Trent started to act very differently as the school year went on. He started to get sick nearly everyday in October and November. Our teacher Mrs. Goodine started to get annoyed about how it was an everyday occurrence after our lunch. He would throw up after every lunch and Logan would want to go with him. We were first told his issue was one with his gallbladder, when this issue was first starting to be taken seriously. 

At some point, it was revealed that Trent didn’t have a gallbladder issue at all. My mother told me the truth that he was dealing with brain cancer, which I didn’t fully understand at the time, but knew it was serious.  Her half sister died of colon cancer, and it was an ugly word to hear surrounding anyone. I just knew that Trent would have to be in a long fight to get rid of the cancer, but I had a lot of hope he would get rid of it. I had a lot of faith in God that his cancer would go away, and Trent would be fine. He would be okay. The whole town of Strasburg, Virginia came together for him to pray, fundraise, and show their support for Trent.  

Many of these fundraisers were panda bear themed. I believe I gave him a panda bear once, even though he was getting so many from everyone in the town. At one of his fundraisers which he actually attended, we watched Kung Fu Panda together and it is one of my favorite bittersweet memories of those days. I attended every one of his fundraisers except for one that took place during a birthday party of mine which was an oversight, as I went to one on my actual birthday instead of doing anything else at the bowling alley. I ended up winning a dinner with a teacher and a friend at some kind of event at the school, which I think now was also a fundraiser, and I picked Logan and Trent.  The teacher ended up being super late to the dinner, which happened to be at the Denny’s in town, but I still had a lot of fun with them.  

Summer break happened and I had gotten braces over the summer and I wanted to show him. I had those colorful band braces and I typically had different colors for whatever holiday was going to be soon. I really wanted to show him I got them. During that summer vacation, I thought a lot about Trent and what 3rd grade was going to be like. One morning I woke up and my mother was calling for me to come downstairs. I happily skipped down the hallway and the stairs and felt okay, until I opened that door. My mother was crying. She had me come over to her and hold her hands. 

“I’m so sorry baby,” Mom said.

I stood there saying nothing. She started crying again. 

“Trent has passed away,” She said.

I instantly started sobbing and was in shock. That was not what was supposed to happen. God wasn’t supposed to let that happen. It was at that moment that any faith I had in religion shattered like a glass bowl that was thrown onto the ground and stomped on a few extra times for extra measure. Mother hugged me and we cried, and so did Emily, my older sister, but after a while I turned around and left to go to my room. 

At the funeral I had a half hope that Trent would just sit up in that coffin in the middle of the funeral and tell everyone he wasn’t dead; that didn’t happen. The funeral was held at the high school gym and I could not look at that gym the same. No miracle happened. I was hoping that the funeral would just stop and he wouldn’t be dead. I kissed his cheek while he was in the coffin and he was so cold. He just had to be asleep, but he was not. He was put into the ground and the fire bells in town went off as a tribute, and the police scanner sounded. He was gone. The boy who loved pandas and was soft and sensitive was gone. The boy that I loved with all my heart in the way a child in elementary school could was gone. Pandas would have a dark meaning behind them now; no longer sweet. 

That wasn’t exactly true though. Every time I saw a stuffed panda bear, or an item relating to them in the store, I had to buy them. This is still a ritual of mine, as my mother even went out of her way to win one for me in a boardwalk game when she had a broken arm and couldn’t work the game as properly. I brought the panda bear with me for college, and I sleep with it close to me every night because panda bears could never truly be ruined. It is a way to be close to him, and I acknowledge the miracle of the panda bear being born, Xiao Liwu, the same day Trent died. The fact that this panda was born was a little gift to me, even though I am not religious anymore. It is a little gift from nature that Trent is no longer suffering, but his spirit and memories are still here. 

Cancer is still a forbidden word, and in some ways I believe it lurks here. My dog, Oliver, happened to die of cancer around the same time I began writing this article which happened to be a complete coincidence. I got more emotional for my brother, who had to be the one to decide what to do with him, than the dog itself.  Still, the dog was around my life for 15 or so years. It might hit one day when he’s no longer whining for attention or annoying me by pooping all over my floor if my door happens to be open because he escaped. It has been like this for the past few years, to the point it is almost like saying Voldemort to me. The dog was old, and to be honest I didn’t care for him as much as my brother did, but it still bugged me that writing this article seemed to bring cancer to the surface of my life again even more.

My Grandpop developed colon cancer, and it was an instant doom feeling inside of me. At that point, I tried to harden myself to death already, and tried to become immune to its effect. Before my Grandpop’s passing, I had lost my cat, Dumbo, and my other Grandfather, who I called Grandaddy, and didn’t want people’s passing to get to me. My Grandpop was definitely a big test to this, as he was a great man. He was super involved with the sporting events and the One Act Play team at my high school. He was an avid boy scout to the point it bothered Grandmom how much he loved it.  He was the best grandfather, as well as the best person for my Grandmom. Him getting cancer was horrible, as it put a lot of strain on our family. My mother, between work and going to take care of him, and my Grandmom, who was dealing with heart issues and lung cancer herself, constantly had to apologize for bringing home Mcdonalds for dinner. It was made worse by the height of the pandemic, as the Doctors truly didn’t seem to be able to properly help him as the hospital only wanted to deal with COVID patients and my mother couldn’t get the real truth out about what he was struggling with, as he didn’t want to be honest about it to them alone. He ended up having an erupted colon, and died in the hospital just as my Uncle was arriving at my Grandmom’s house, as if he was holding on for her to not be alone and for him to not be alone before he died. However, even though his situation was a big test, at the same time I rationalized this with relief of the situation being over, that it wasn’t really him anymore, and that it was for the better. I didn’t cry, even though tears did burn in my eyes, which meant I won. 

Ironically, the first time I let myself actually cry about death again was over someone I didn’t know at all, but watched online. This person was Technoblade, a youtuber with 10 million subscribers that ended up dying from sarcoma, a type of cancer. When I learned of Technoblade’s diagnosis of cancer, I felt like one of the only people with a feeling he was going to die. Everyone else reassured me he would be fine, as Technoblade didn’t seem too worried in his videos about it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. It’s probably because I felt like cancer lingered everywhere around me and ruined things near me. It hadn’t been too long since Grandpop died when I learned about Technoblade’s diagnosis, and my Grandmom kept dealing with lung cancer. I wasn’t a super fan of Technoblade, at least not anymore, but it did shake me that cancer was still being cancer towards people that mattered to me on some level.  

On June 30th, 2022, Technoblade’s dad sat down and filmed a video telling us that Technoblade passed away, and for the first time in a while I cried about death, and it bothered me for a while. It still bothers me, but I am able to go back and laugh at his old videos and cry, and I constantly look at Technoblade’s dad’s posts on Reddit to find closure. I learned more about Technoblade through his father’s posts and comments on Reddit which is both painful and healing. I realized it is not the best to not let myself feel things surrounding death, and that crying doesn’t mean I let grief control me. Ever since Technoblade’s death, I felt the need to share my story with all of this death, loss, and grief, 

My Grandmom was given six months to live from her lung cancer around six months ago now, and she is still here. When she dies, I am not sure how I will handle it yet, but I won’t let myself stop feeling things anymore when it comes to her. I’ll appreciate the poetic ugliness as best I could, like Trent and the little gift of that panda bear being born the same day he died, or Grandpop dying but waiting for my Uncle to get to my Grandmom, or any of the other poetic moments I experienced like Dumbo the cat cuddling with me extra the day before he got hit by a car. I know this topic is grim, and I tried to shut myself away from it and forget, but I missed the little gift in it all by doing that, just like how I nearly pushed away panda bears because of my pain but realized I needed them instead. It still means something and there’s still beauty, just like that day at the San Diego zoo on July 29th, 2012.  

Jessi Walker

Kutztown '25

I am a junior at Kutztown University, and I am double majoring in English and English: Professional Writing and I have a minor in Performance & Storytelling. I grew up in a small town called Strasburg, Virginia on a farm that was five miles outside of town right next to the Appalachian mountains. I am an editor for Kutztown's chapter of Her Campus, the Editor in Chief and Head of Fiction for Shoofly Literary Magazine, an undergraduate writing center tutor, a member of the English Club, and Actors Creating Theatre. Other activities I enjoy is consuming many types of media, playing video games, and performing in theater.