February 20, 2015

My Friend Akim Died at 23. Why?

They opened the coffin. People are lining up to see him.”

I didn’t know whose voice made the statement. But at that moment the floodgates opened and the tears that I had been holding back throughout the service came pouring out.

It wasn’t just me.

All 25 members of our musical group, the AIIAS International Youth Chorale, began to weep as we peered at the long line in front of the white casket holding the body of our good friend and fellow singer, Akim Zhigankov, 23. We had just exited the stage after singing the last song in the auditorium of the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines.

I took a step back, shaking my head in denial. I felt myself being pulled into the tight embrace of my friend Ate Gay Deles.

“I don’t think I can look. I don’t want to look,” I said, sobbing.

“That’s OK.” She whispered shakily to me. “I don’t think I can either.”

Akim posing with his parents, Oleg and Elena Zhigankov, center, and an aunt for a photo by Aimee Grace Tapeceria, the author of this article, during a trip to Russia on May 21, 2014. A group of people from AIIAS toured Russia last summer.

Feb. 17, 2015, Tuesday
7:12 a.m., my family’s home

I was getting ready for work when my older brother, Aldwin, knocked urgently on my door.

“Aimee, did you see it, the post on Facebook saying that Akim died this morning?”

I grabbed my phone and quickly went on Facebook to check, silently praying that my brother was wrong.

Then I saw the post. It was already nine minutes old.

I, usually the most updated person on social media, was nine minutes late.

I sank to my knees. “No … please Lord … NOOOO!!!” I typed the message on my phone and clicked “post” before I dropped it. Clasping my hands shaking hands together, I prayed, “Lord, why?”

I was just one of the many members of the AIIAS community whose heart broke that morning. We had just lost a brother, a friend, a family member.

No one thought that death would be the result of our intense prayers since the news emerged just days earlier that Akim Zhigankov had fallen seriously ill. Akim, a massage therapist and the son of Russian professors at the seminary at AIIAS, had been helping his family build a wellness center to share Jesus with people on Tablas Island in central Philippines when he came down with a fever and infection that baffled doctors. 

Prayers circled the globe as word spread home to Russia and to other parts of the world. Prayer appeals were posted across social media, including on the Facebook pages of Adventist Review and Adventist World.

No one expected that God would choose to answer our prayers differently from what we expected. 

Akim’s death devastated many of the young people who had befriended him since he arrived two years earlier with his parents, a sister around his age named Sasha, and a little brother, Grigory. Many of us had fasted and prayed for the first time in our lives. We had pleaded with God to restore our friend to his former health. We refused to doubt because to do so would be to question God’s ability to heal Akim. We recalled all the mission stories and personal testimonies that we’ve heard of God performing great miracles for those who believed.

The day that Akim died passed in a blur. As a teacher at AIIAS Academy, I knew the importance of keeping a cheery facade. But that morning, I hid in the office. Sunglasses covered my swollen eyes as I tried to prepare for classes.

Outside the window, I could see the Zhigankovs’ home. Chairs had already been placed in the driveway to accommodate the people who would most assuredly come by to express their condolences. The house was barely 50 meters (160 feet) away, but I couldn’t bring myself to walk over.

By afternoon, I was finally able to bring myself to face my last class for the day. Armed with the activity that I had prepared for them, I marched out of my office and down the stairs into the seventh-grade class. The first question that student Ismael Patino asked as I entered was, “Ma’am, what happened to Akim?”

“Don’t talk to me,” I quickly replied. I couldn’t say anything more because an explanation would assuredly bring back the tears.

The class fell silent. The students empathized with me in their own way. They may have been too young to hang out with Akim, but no one on the close-knit AIIAS campus was left untouched by the news. Life seemed to slow down.

On Facebook, friends from around the world kept track of the tragedy that was unfolding, their grief felt more intensely because they were alone.

The AIIAS International Youth Chorale, where Akim sang bass, was asked to sing four songs for the funeral the next day.

My brother Aldwin, who is the conductor of the choir, sent a group message to all present and former members to sing at the funeral. Katrina “Kaycee” Camay, a close friend and former choir member working in Thailand, quickly bought a ticket to come home. Akim’s best friends wanted to return but couldn’t. Jasmine Mawii was in Myanmar, and Jose Mario “Jomar” de Castro was in Peru. Neither could David Palar who was in Indonesia.

As for the rest of us near the AIIAS campus, we agreed to sing. 

The AIIAS International Youth Chorale singing at Akim Zhigankov's funeral. Photo: Ranjith Kingstone

Feb. 18, 2015
7 p.m., AIIAS Auditorium

Wilmaree Tornalejo, Kryzyl Rosario, and I entered the AIIAS Auditorium, walking quickly toward the impromptu dressing rooms in the back. The choir was supposed to meet an hour earlier, but we were late because we had just finished arranging hastily developed photos of Akim and his AIIAS friends in an album to give to his parents, professors Elena and Oleg Zhigankov. The photos were also placed in a video that was supposed to be presented that night. 

As we walked on stage to sing, we saw that the 1,500-seat auditorium was more than half filled. The grief-driven silence was so thick that the pitch given for our a capella song seemed to ring on endlessly.

As we began to sing "In His Presence," I realized that each breath that I took needed to be deep and cleansing. My breath began to shake when we reached the verse, "I don’t always understand what Your perfect will demands.”

Oleg and Elena Zhigankov speaking at their son's funeral. Photo: Ranjith Kingstone

The next song was more difficult. But as we finished, I gave myself an imaginary pat on the back for limiting myself to only a tear or two. I was grateful that I couldn’t see the coffin from the stage.

We sat down to listen to a message from AIIAS professor Michael Campbell about the privilege to celebrate Akim’s life even though it ended too soon. An A-dventurous, K-ind, and I-ntelligent young man on a M-ission for the Lord that he loved so much was how Campbell described AKIM.

Ingrid Dumitrescu, a childhood friend of Akim, played her harp and gave a short tribute while pictures of Akim flashed on the screen.

It was during this time that Kaycee and Amber arrived. Though one was from Bangkok and the other was from Manila, both were able to make it for the last two songs.

As we walked up to sing our third song, I already knew that deep breaths wouldn't hold back the tears this time. This was Akim's favorite song, "Changed," and it spoke of death and resurrection: "Death where is thy sting! God conquered death and hell. We shall all be changed, we shall all be changed!" 

Walking off stage while wiping the tears from our faces, we heard Michael Campbell invite Akim's parents to give a life sketch of their son. 

With hearts breaking, we all silently held our breath while the couple made their way to the front, clinging to each other for strength. 

"Akim was born …" Dr. Oleg began. Each word he spoke with such pain and difficulty as he tried to put into words the kind of son that Akim was. 

He painted a picture of a young man whose greatest desire in life was to serve God and to help people. A son to be proud of — and to praise God for the kind of life he led. 

Five people were invited by Campbell to say a couple of words about Akim. 

Before we knew it, it was time to sing our final song. This was the song that I had been bracing for all night. The one that carried a message for all of us but, even more important, for Akim’s parents.

I had to shut my eyes as tears rolled down my cheeks during the song, Scott Wesley Brown’s “When Answers Aren't Enough.” I couldn't even begin to imagine how devastated Akim’s parents must have felt.

"When answers aren't enough, there is Jesus," we sang. 

Yes, Lord. I do not know why You chose not to answer our prayers, I thought. Akim was such a good person and such a blessing to everyone. Why did you allow Satan to win this one?

"When answers aren't enough … He is there."

But I know that You loved him more. Whatever reason for his untimely and painful death, Lord, I choose to believe that You were him until the very last moments. Thank You for the assurance that we will see Akim again.

As we bowed our heads in prayer, sobs reverberated in the auditorium. I breathed a sigh of relief when we left the stage. It was over. 

But not quite.

As soon as we got out, the voice announced that the coffin would be opened for the next hour so friends could see Akim one last time.

The unsteady dam holding back my tears collapsed.

Feb. 19, 2015, Thursday
10 a.m., Oleg Zhigankov’s Facebook page (slightly edited for clarity)

Akim Zhigankov posing with the author of his article, Aimee Grace Tapeceria, in Russia last summer.

“Satan thought he would have a victory over God's people, that he would destroy their work, destroy their hope, but he's very wrong. It is not an end of Akim Zhigankov and his dream. It's just the beginning. …

“We'll continue in your spirit, our dear son, our beloved Akim. Thank you, thank you Lord, for transforming us. It came with a dear price, though.

“We'll continue with your wellness center, Akim, in the same spirit in which you started it. …

“Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord, for Akim!”

Akim’s parents are devastated with grief. Details remain sketchy about Akim’s death. We may never know what happened in this lifetime.

But we do know that we are in the middle of a battle. The enemy is doing his best to break God’s people. Even God’s own Son died an excruciating death. But in Jesus' resurrection, we are given assurance that Akim will be resurrected, too.

When the trumpet sounds on that glorious morning, let us be ready to stand with the One who has already been assured the victory. Choose to follow God. Choose to fight on His side. Choose to live a life that is consecrated to Him. Then we can be assured that even though we may suffer losses today, we will see our loved ones again.