People Who Died

Traditional Mexican sugar skull candy for the Day of the Dead (source unknown)

Traditional Mexican sugar skull candy for the Day of the Dead (source unknown)

Jim Carroll released a controversial song in 1980 called People Who Died. It was a punk song that catalogued the method of death of many of the songwriter’s young friends. Most of my friends hated it because they thought it was disrespectful. I completely disagree. As told in his memoir, The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll lived as an addict on the streets, and he knew dozens of people in similar circumstances who didn’t survive. The song was his way of immortalizing the ones who were gone too soon. The ways they died were both stupid and poignant, just like life.

Everyone eventually experiences the loss of loved ones. I am fortunate that my list is short. Here is my very own litany of people who died.

First Death: My maternal grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack when he was 69. I had lived in a little house in his back yard when I was a young child, and he was a close and benign presence in our lives: mowing the lawn, smoking his pipe, watching TV in his La-Z-Boy chair. I will never forget the sequence of events the night he died, when my parents received a call in the middle of the night to say he was in distress. It was almost Hallowe’en, and over the next few days, all my aunts, uncles and cousins converged upon the house, and it was decided that us kids could go trick or treating in my grandparents’ neighbourhood. We hastily assembled makeshift costumes out of things at hand (turning out as low-budget cross-dressers and hoboes) and we canvassed the block with pillow cases to hold our treats. In the company of our older cousins, we went out longer and further than ever before, and got an unprecedented amount of candy. We all crashed from our sugar highs at the funeral, where we were crushed to see our grandmother and our parents crying.

Next Death: When I was 7 years old and in Grade 2, a close friend of mine – the same age and in my class at school – died by drowning. Our families were good friends who attended church together and visited each other, and their kids went to school with my brother, sister and me. My friend was a lively, smart, fierce little girl. My parents thought it best that I didn’t attend the funeral. I missed my friend’s presence in class, at church, and when we visited each other’s homes. We had each been part of families with three children, and now they were two. She left such a gap. It was awful to see how it continued to grow over the years.

Over the course of my school years, I experienced a number of normal and expected deaths, starting with great-aunts and uncles, and my last living great-grandparent. When my great-grandmother died, my parents left the three of us teenagers at home while they travelled, so as not to disrupt school. Left unsupervised overnight for the first time, we invited friends over and got into a bit of trouble. Although my parents never knew, I am still deeply ashamed of my behaviour on that occasion.

During high school and university years, I can count three young men who died in accidents and three young men who died by suicide. One had been dear to me, a conservative and religious boy who made a good-faith attempt at marriage, but ended his life when he couldn’t come to terms with his attraction to men. Then the death of a young woman, the daughter of a beloved teacher, of a brain tumour.

By the end of my twenties, I no longer had any grandparents living. I was especially close to my maternal grandmother. She lived for 15 years after my grandfather’s sudden death (chronicled above) and I often packed a little suitcase and stayed with her on the weekends when she was still unaccustomed to living alone. Even now, when I want to de-stress, I think about Nannie working in her garden, and I remember the layout of all the flowers and I name them to myself. My paternal grandparents lived further away and I am grateful I got to know them a little better as individuals when I was in my twenties, but there is still so much I don’t know about them.

As a more mature adult, my ex-husband died after a lengthy struggle with substance abuse. It was a shock and not a shock, as anyone dealing with substance abuse will know – you always expect to get that call, but you never really think it will happen. In the back of your mind, you are always thinking, “Well, look at Keith Richards.” He and I (no, not Keith and I!) had been separated for two years at the time, and I had moved on with my life to the extent possible. But Link was only 6 when he died. I feel so, so bad that Link was deprived of the experience of having a grieving family to mourn with. After the funeral, all the relatives were so far away. Link and I just carried on as usual. When we got together with the family, they wanted to be happy and create new memories together. It is now nearing one of those 6-year-intervals when I think, “Link (now almost 24) has spent three times as much of their life without their dad as with him” and I just feel devastated.

Sadly, my ex also lost his father when he was a child, and his step-father died in recent years – although, blessedly, in his 80s.

Now I am at the age when many of my friends and co-workers are losing their parents. Mine are a little younger than most (they had me when they were still 22, almost unthinkable nowadays!) and I am lucky to have them.  One of my aunts and one of my uncles have died. So we have reached their generation.

Everyone older than myself always tells me how hard it is as parents die and then friends die. Gradually it is our generation: it is us! And how confounding it is to realize “those old people” are us, too.

I am not quite there yet (50s) but I am aware of the passage of time and that things come to an end. Sometimes before their time, if there is such a thing – whatever one’s time is supposed to be. All I can say is Viva la Vie! And I will take as much of it as I can get.

I will close by quoting Jim Carroll’s song, with the respect he intended toward his friends:

Those are people who died, died

Those are people who died, died

They were all my friends, and they died

I miss ‘em – they died

Your loved ones may have died many years ago and as time passes, fewer people remember them and talk about them. Surviving family members have them in their hearts, but may rarely hear their names or share memories of them. This week, which includes the Day of the Dead, tell their stories. Tell their families you remember them and think about them. Tell someone “Snapdragons were his favourite flower” or “Do you remember that tea she used to make that you could stand a spoon up in?”  And if you have no one to share with (or even if you do), try this as well: no matter how self-conscious you feel, stand in a room and say each of their names out loud. It is powerful!

My people are:

Cliff

Jennifer

Katie

John, Eric and Duane

Rick, Chris and Jeff

Anne-Monica

Agnes, Mona and Archie

Darrell

Ben and Gene

Marie and Sam

And others whom I fondly remember who were not part of this little narrative.

In the comments, will you name your people who died? I would be honoured if you would share their names with me.

21 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing. If you don’t mind I will lay some names here (and I think I may have to break out my personal journal and write about it):
    John and Mary (both parents) (both gone early in their late 60s, but they lived the biker lifestyle). They taught me to always say I love you to those I loved, no matter if I was angry or upset.
    Jimbo (biker lived a magical 70 years this year, 30 years clean as a heroin junkie and Hep C survivor)
    Digger (biker died in his 50s)
    Clyde (biker died in his 50s)
    All 4 grandparents, Elizabeth, Orville, Laughlin and Jeanie (died in their early 70s when I was a child)
    Joe, took his life in his 30s. We grew up as teens and may have had disagreements but he always treated me like a brother.
    Little John, my little brother stillborn with umbilical cord wrapped around him and his story was short (but really impacted my family for the rest of our childhood and even into adulthood).
    My husband’s grand parents who died just a few years ago while I was in my 30s Eleanore and Clark. They accepted me into his family when his parents and sibling wouldn’t.

    There are more but I have to think. Thank you for letting me share.

  2. Mel

    Brilliant post Dar! I hear that song occasionally and it always makes me think. My list will be extremely long:

    – Marilyn and Maryann (2 young cousins struck by a train when we were all in high school)
    – Paula, Anne and Alphonse (great aunts and uncle who raised my mom after the death of her mother when she was 2 yrs old)
    – Catherine, Herman, Leo, Ted, Bernard and Joe (my mom and all her brothers)
    – Edward, Tony, Marge, Ursula, Genevieve, Jenny, Mary, John, Andrew, Fred, Steve (my dad and all of his siblings but one – Kasper)
    – Gertrude, Darrell, Gene and Vince (my husband’s grandmother, brother, step-father and uncle.
    And if we want to include furbabies:
    – Puffer, Junior, Fritz, Smokey, Zimbra, Hobbes, Kia, Meggie, Calvin, Yob, Fynn, Siri, Pepe, Sierra and Waffles.

    • Thanks, Mel. It is sad that your parents and almost all of their generation is gone. On the Prairies, especially, it is a whole way of life that is passing. It makes me happy to think that people like Brendan are now carrying it on.

      You have been an excellent cat mommy as well as kid mommy 🙂

  3. When I was in third grade, my maternal great-grandmother died. My mom was pregnant with my baby sister at the time, and it was an emotional maelstrom for her; she had lived with her grandparents for a time when she was a child and had fostered that relationship throughout her life, very much including her grandma (her grandpa, my great-grandpa, had died while my mom was pregnant with me) in the lives of her children. My great-grandfather died one month before I was born, and here was my mother – again at the end of a pregnancy, again knowing that her child would never know one of her grandparents – going through another devastating loss while at the same time looking forward with such hope to the new life she was carrying.

    The passing of my great-grandmother was my first experience with death, and what I witnessed during that time (family dynamics can be troubling at the best of times but are even more complicated during times of grieving), as well as my mother’s choices regarding her children during that time, left a lasting impression on me. She wanted us (me, age 8; my brother, age 5) to understand. To experience death. To be allowed to know what was happening, and to grieve.

    It was something she took a lot of slack for. But I’m so glad she did what she did. We (the children) went to the funeral, we saw great-grandma in the casket. We attended the service, the burial, the fellowship. We were allowed to see, to ask, to question, to know.

    My mother treated us as people, small though we were. And because of that, we were able to say goodbye.

    More than you asked for, I know. But while there have been others along the way, my great-grandmother’s passing was the first. And for me, the most profound.

    Tilda

    • Thanks for your story, Mrs F. When someone is pregnant or has a new baby, it is natural to think about the generations all being present together and getting to know each other, and it’s sad when the chain is broken.

  4. Dar, thanks for sharing your most daunting moments. Death is hard on the ones left behind. We keep them alive with remembrances of fond and funny moments. I cannot watch “Field of Dreams” without choking up when the son asks his father for a game of catch, as my dad often coached and played baseball with me. Keith

    • You have made a good point, that a scene in a movie or a book can often bring up emotions we’d otherwise keep stuffed. Any opportunity to get them out seems healthy to me.

  5. Cynthia

    My paternal grandparent. I didn’t know them well as they were not very child-friendly, but Grandpa’s was the first death in my life and started me thinking about what happens after life.
    My beloved maternal grandparents who lived nearby and were the most wonderful and dear people in my world.
    Lately, I have lost two aunts and an uncle, the last of my mom’s generation, and my dad. Every day there is something I want to ask or tell my dad although he has been gone four years.
    I lost a friend through suicide during college and a cousin in a car accident on her high school graduation night. I lost a best friend shortly after college in an accident. I lost a lifelong friend recently, just months after she retired with plans for years of travel.
    I feel fortunate that my list is short, but each one who is gone is still an ache in my heart. I miss you, Valla, Ralph, George, Gladys, Wilma, Audrey, Bill, Don, Vicki, Barb, Louise, and Ruth.
    Thank you for this post.

    • Hi Cynthia, thank you for sharing their names. Just those tiny details are the tip of the iceberg of their real stories. So glad we have our memories even when they get indistinct and are more like a feeling.

  6. Fiona

    Wow…I am almost in tears reading this post. I’ve briefly mentioned to all my French classes this week that Halloween Eve is called ‘Toussaint’ in France (a contraction of ‘Tous les Saints’)…a day to remember the dead and visit their graves (and the two week school break around that time is also called ‘Toussaint.’) But I have never considered consciously speaking about the dead and passing on memories on that day. Now I’m going to do so with J, about relatives who are gone. We keep their photographs on our hall table.

    I am lucky my list so far is so short.

    – Grandpa (died too young, in his 60s, when I was 7)
    – Leina (my best friend from high school. died at 19 in a car accident)
    – Elsie, Mabel (two great-aunts)
    – Grandma (my maternal grandmother)
    – Grandma (my paternal grandmother)
    – Nan (Mr D’s grandmother)
    – Don, David (two uncles, died young in recent years)

    • Hi Fiona, I would love to think you’ll talk about them and remember them. In retrospect, the reason I remember my great-aunts and uncles and other relatives so well is not because of our brief visits, but because of the stories my parents told about them. After a while, stories and memories and photographs all merge and probably create a truer truth than any one of them alone. If you wait for kids to ask about older relatives, it may not happen; I think it’s repetition over the years that makes our family histories stick. Also, a lot of kids and teens don’t spend time with older adults and may think of them only in terms of their current interests and abilities, so it can be eye-opening for them to think of older folks as ever getting into mischief or having adventurous lives.

  7. Fiona

    * correction…Toussaint is the 1st November (after Halloween, not before.)

  8. This post did bring me to tears and I’ve never heard about the day of the dead before. I like the idea of a special day to remember loved ones.

    Florence and Gordon (my great-grandparents)
    Grandpa Joe
    Grandpa Jack
    Grandma Ray
    Grandpa Bill
    Paul, Mary, Ralph, Ole May, Clara (great aunts and uncle)
    Brett (my cousin, a police officer, who was killed in the line of duty in his early 30s)
    Tom (my step-dad and one of the greatest men I’ve ever known, who we lost in 2014.)

    • Hi Candi, I am feeling the need of a day for remembrance, too. Of course I can think about a person on their birth or death anniversary, but to have a day to ponder death a little more seems appropriate to me. Many of us come into the world with a feeling of being nurtured because we have ancestors, older relatives, and close “kinfolk” who create a safety net for us. It can come out all wrong if family turns on us, but for those of us with warm connections, it is hard to let them go. Or rather, the person goes but the connection doesn’t have to.

  9. EcoCatLady

    What a beautiful post. I never realized that Day of the Dead was for remembering those who have passed – I always thought it was something much more morbid.

    My fist brush with death was the mother of a classmate (his name was Mike.) We were in second grade. His mother arrived at school to pick him up mid-day for some sort of a scheduled appointment, when she had a heart attack and died on the front steps of the school. Our classroom overlooked the entrance, and I can still remember the crowd of paramedics, firemen and police as they performed CPR trying to save her. A year or so later, Mike and his younger sister Lynn were playing when he accidentally hit her in the head. The blow seemed to impact her more than it should have, so they went to the doctor where they discovered an enormous cancerous brain tumor – which had nothing to do with the hit on the head, but I’m sure it didn’t feel that way for Mike. Lynn died a few weeks later. My heart still weeps for that boy. It’s hard enough to lose close family members, but to lose them like that – feeling that you were somehow responsible – it just kills me.

    So here’s my list in chronological order:
    Mike’s mother (whose name I never knew), Lynn, Clinton (my grandfather), Wade (a classmate who was killed by lightning in the 5th grade), Robyn & Kelly (softball teammates who were killed in a car crash), Helen (my grandmother), Evelyn (my grandmother – her favorite song was “You Are My Sunshine” and it still makes me cry to hear it), Donnabeth (coworker who spent years playing the harp for people in hospice care), Paul (coworker), Marie (friend), Vicky (friend), and Mary Ann (my mother).

    And perhaps the harder ones for me, the pets I’ve lost:
    Peachy, Mitten, Snowball, Tippy, Samantha, Paco, Victor, Mow, Daisy, Sputnik, Princess, Gray Boy, Little Blackie, Little Gray, and Gracie.

    • Hi Cat, a tragic and sudden loss feels all wrong and can really shake up our sense of how things are supposed to unfold. But even expected deaths of the old can have a profound impact. When you come down to it, we only create close bonds with a limited number of people in our lives (a few, a few dozen, or a few hundred) and it is a very big deal to lose someone with whom you spent a lifetime sharing. Especially in later life, how many times are you going to start over and get to know someone that well again? And how many people do you still know who have known you from birth, like a grandparent? Those connections are permanent and really need to be celebrated.

      I think a lot of people fare much worse with the loss of a pet than a person. The time you spend with them, the care and concern you show, the feeling of being completely responsible for their well-being, and the way that pets are an escape for us and our emotions every day…makes them indispensable.

  10. So many lovely memories of those who are gone now. My grandparents of course as I am now 67 – Esther, Walter, Grace and Mortimer. My parents, Lloyd and Betty, who made it through many surgeries and illnesses, and in my Dad’s case a tour of duty on a bomber during WWII, to 88 and 93 respectively and lovely mother in-law Beverlee who died of lung cancer too young in her 70s. My uncles – Dad’s older and younger brothers who both died well before him, Langley and Leonard, and my Mom’s brother, Howard, who died in his 50’s of complications of alcoholism. My husband’s uncles including Don who died last week at 93 and Mel who died a couple of years ago in his 90s. My husband’s cousin Andrea who died in her mid-40’s of brain cancer but left a wonderful husband who has become a good friend of ours and 2 young daughters who are now marvelous young women making their way in the world after college. We have been blessed to not have yet lost our brothers, other cousins or any children or nieces/nephews. I still have one aunt and my husband an 2 aunts and an uncle. We seem to come from generally long lived families. Of course I have lost friends like everyone. Most recently the husband of my best friend died at 71 of complications from early onset Alzheimer’s. Another friend lost her mother a few years ago but her Mom lived to 107! Thank you for asking us to do this.

  11. Interesting timing (not that I was unaware, being a church attendee that honours All Souls Day) – I went to a funeral in the past week – the mother of a colleague. The colleague is somewhere in the 40-50s range (it’s harder to tell with weathered men who’ve worked outside all their life). Whilst I’ve been his ‘boss’ for only 18 months, I couldn’t find a more upbeat and happy go lucky guy. Life’s been rough to him – according to others, and I believe it. It was important to me, to support him at his mother’s funeral. Despite working at our company for 30 years, only two others came from work, and one of those was in two minds. It makes me sad – funerals aren’t always about knowing who passed, but supporting those who mourn. Related to work, another staff member’s mother died in a hit and run – his whole work crew took the day to attend. A former colleague also passed away – whilst he was in my reporting line, he was already in hospital when I took on the role. I visited him in hospital to offer him his redundancy pay out. I didn’t attend either of these funerals – again, his work team all attended.

    I had my maternal grandfather (Tom) die and my paternal grandmother (Heather) die in the same year – 2001. I was in my penultimate year at school. I know they would die, the first was related to asbestos, and I visited him alone in hospital before I returned to school for term time. He was an engineer, so when I got into Engineering a 18 months later, I talked to his wife/my grandmother about his legacy. My grandmother had had cancer. Thankfully, my families still talk about each of them.

    Otherwise, one of my uni boyfriend’s mother passed away – he remains a friend in the same social group, so I travelled to Canberra to attend the funeral with friends. His father had died when he was young, and I know it always left a hole in his life. I have taken time to note the key dates in my calendar, so I reach out to him on those days.

    More recently, the mother of a church friend passed away. Her mother was ill, and had come to live with her, coincidentally in a terrace house almost opposite my loft! She’s a single mother with twins, whom I’ve known since the kids were babies. Anne was a snappy woman when I knew her, but was clearly a very capable woman in her prime.

    Of my own generation, I have known one or two school mates to have passed away. Horribly, one was in a rural car accident. Phoebe was such a energetic presence, it’s hard to imagine her ‘growing old’. A handful of years ago, another class mate, Kate, passed away from a heart condition. She was married, and it gladdens me she’d found a lifelong love, as much as it saddens me that he’s been left without her. Again, she was the life of the party in the boarding house. I’m incredibly thankful to not know anyone who has taken their life – that would be a very difficult death to handle.

    • Hi Sarah, It always surprises me, the decisions people make about attending the funerals of relatives of co-workers. I think most colleagues genuinely don’t know what to do when they didn’t know the deceased, and are afraid of seeming too intimate or out-of-place. I like your thought that it is really about supporting those who mourn.

      I am at the age where I know a lot of people with older parents who need care, or a parent has moved in with them, or they are making decisions about residential care. I need to get mine talking about their wishes, while they are still of sound mind and body!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: