(This is a version of the eulogy the author read during a memorial mass last November 23 for Dr. June Pagaduan Lopez. Photographs are from June Lopez’s Facebook page.)
So how do you say goodbye to someone who saved your life, in the most painstaking of ways?
Dr. June Pagaduan Lopez was my psychiatrist for the last seven years, since a different kind of depression hit me when I was recovering from cancer treatment in 2014. She was introduced by another lifesaver of a friend, Cathy Babao, because June was also a cancer survivor, and understood what it was like to float in limbo and not know what to do with the rest of your life after the upheaval of a life-threatening disease.
The first time June and I sat down, she told me, “You don’t have to feel like this. Give yourself a break.”
I am a believer in supervised medication, and we got along just fine, hitting the jackpot with the first medicine that she prescribed, which took effect immediately. “Relax, medicines are ‘cleaner’ now,” she said.
I knew what she meant; when I was first diagnosed with depression in 1996, my meds cost an arm and a leg and left me stoned for days.
(Many people believe antidepressants are bad for you. I say, every person is different, and when properly supervised, medication can save lives.)
June used psychotherapy on me, reaching slowly but surely into my insides and yanking out my neuroses. Her face remained passive, but she listened to every word I said, even as she gently pushed her box of tissue towards me for the tears that inevitably came, and gave her advice firmly, and with no sugar-coating.
I will never forget how I sometimes would tell her during a difficult session, “Pagod na ako.” Then she would gently say, “Sige pa. We’ve already dug this up.” She would not keep track of time if she knew you needed her, and in her sharp, strong presence, I laid out all my fears and regrets, like cadavers after an explosion. I would leave her clinic exhausted, but also about 10 lbs lighter.
She was also an advocate of the psycho-spiritual approach. She believed in prayer, and referred me to Brahma Kumaris to learn to be quiet, meditate, and let go of unnecessary thoughts.
She pinpointed the very crux of my pain, and taught me to face it, accept it, and let it go. She encouraged me to be gracious, not angry, when I felt hurt or abandoned. She showed me, even by her own example, that being alone was a blessing in countless ways.
She was among the first Filipino women to study the effects of torture, and helped push to classify rape as a form of torture, as well
I learned more about my superstar doctor through the years—a Ten Outstanding Women in the Nations Service (TOWNS) awardee for psychiatry in 1989, a member of the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights against torture, an advocate who listened to survivors’ stories in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda, a main proponent of the Mental Health Bill, and a famed anti-Marcos activist in her college days who opted to become a doctor to help change the system.
I wrote about her work with the Citizens’ Network for Psychosocial Response for the Inquirer in 2015; the CNETPSR is “a loose multisector coalition of mental health professionals and NGOs engaged in psychosocial interventions…Dr. June Pagaduan-Lopez, a noted psychiatrist, professor of psychiatry, and stress and trauma expert, was among the first volunteers to hit Tacloban in January 2014.”
(I learned from other eulogies that she was among the first Filipino women to study the effects of torture, and helped push to classify rape as a form of torture, as well.) She was the epitome of a soft-spoken, brilliant woman who carried a huge stick.
Yet she was also funny, vain, mataray to the high heavens, and intolerant of stupidity and injustice. She called a spade a spade and did not couch her observations, which I appreciated—yet you knew it was coming from a place of love. She adored her children, and was gearing up to be the ultimate marshmallow of a lola to her two-month-old granddaughter, Elle.
We talked often about how she should write her memoirs, particularly her experiences in her practice, and she recruited me to edit the thing, which has sadly remained unwritten.
I had a foretaste when, maybe out of pandemic boredom, she started posting about her travels, near-miss love affairs, and other memories. I remember when she stood up for someone who was being badly treated at the Alitalia counter, and ended up being “punished” when the airline “lost” her baggage and refused to check her in. She found herself in Rome and missed her flight to Assisi, which I had insisted she visit. Through sheer luck, I was online at the time, and guided her step by step on how to board a train from Da Vinci to Termini, find the Trenitalia office, and buy a ticket—but not before buying some clothes. She met a couple of guardian angels in Assisi who helped her turn the visit into a spiritual renewal.
Then there was the time, at the height of my stress and depression over my mother’s illness in 2019, when I was just ready to give up—and by some divine impulse, decided to text her, on a Sunday evening, when I knew she was out of town, and maybe half hoping she would ignore me so I could get on with it. She tag-teamed with Cathy until I was checked into a hospital and got any self-destructive thoughts knocked out of me. Cathy stayed until I met with June the next day, who promoted me to bipolar, gave me new medications, and checked me out.
June was genuinely happy I trusted her, and called me her “valedictorian of a patient.” Because of her, I will never shut up about my condition, making it my own advocacy as well, in case the revelation can help someone else.
June was genuinely happy I trusted her, and called me her ‘valedictorian of a patient’
After my mother passed, after months of the acceptance and forgiveness that June encouraged me to work on, I was able to find the closure that changed my life.
If you don’t have your psychiatrist’s personal cellphone number, I don’t think you’re in very good hands. June responded to texts, called me out in private when she didn’t like the tone of my Facebook posts, and celebrated with me when I was okay or lowered my dosage. We had a regimen down pat, and it worked every time.
This year, she faced health challenges and had to be confined several times; she sent me a picture after I sent her birthday flowers last June, and later, kare-kare for a hearty post-hospital treat. Even when she wasn’t in the pink of health, she checked up on my meds, and even asked me to join her for kuwentuhan disguised as a consult sometimes. That’s what our last few teleconsults were: kuwentuhan, with me in a ratty malong and her in a daster.
I texted her last Wednesday to ask how she was, after she was confined for a fever, and to assure her I was okay, and that a recent episode happened only because I was dumb enough to change medicine brands, which sent me bonkers for a bit. She was staying strong, she said, with all the prayers.
June passed away last November 20.
A good psychiatrist gives you hope, but a great psychiatrist tells you why you can keep hoping, and hopes along with you
Psychiatry is an infinitely complex field because you need much more than the smarts all doctors should have, and because there are no clear technical parameters. Under all that expertise, a psychiatrist is nothing without compassion because, as I read somewhere, this doctor is in the business of hope—hope that everything will be all right, hope that you can live and love normally, hope that you can walk out into the world and not be destroyed by pain despite your differently-wired brain.
I think a good psychiatrist gives you hope, but a great psychiatrist tells you why you can keep hoping, and hopes along with you.
I felt utterly lost when I heard she was gone. But I’ll be damned if I let all her hard work on me go to waste. As another friend Dana said, in that way, she will never, ever stop saving my life.
I love you, June. Thanks for hope and beyond, and everything else. Have a great trip back home.