When I was an undergrad at GSU, I wrote for the student newspaper, The Signal. While I mostly wrote news bits and a few features on some minor controversies. I was taken aback about a story told to me when I was making my routine stop by the Campus Police Station. I had already heard “thru the grapevine,” so asked and got more details about a young student who had slipped, fallen, and died the day before at the dorms (“The Village”) during a rain shower.
It was just such an “out of the blue” random event that It got me thinking and writing about the search for the meaning of life.
Fast Forward to 2020
More than two decades later, a cousin of the young man who died contacted me via my personal website. She had dabbled in genealogy, gotten frustrated, and wanted to know more about her cousin. She is a few years older and their families had lost touch.
She hired me to do some research and coaching.
While I do not generally see my role as re-connecting current families, that’s what turned out here. I also learned a lot more about a young man that had only been a verbal story of a tragedy before. I wrote my OpEd piece without seeing his obituary or interviewing anyone other than the Police Chief, and that was somewhat “off the record” or at least only the publicly-released information.
I do not remember knowing that Jacob was African American – I doubt it would have changed what I wrote about him at the time, yet it revealed to me that, as a white person, I had that generic internal image of him being white. Seeing his obituary made his death a bit more immediate to me, since I am now raising a young son with brown skin not much lighter than Jacob’s – yeah, I still have more work to do…
How the story continued…
Jacob’s cousin and I were able to connect his record on Family Search. Most of Jacob’s aunts and uncles on his Mother’s side are still living, which means no public posting. We discovered that Jacob’s Mother, my client’s Aunt Marie, died in 2017. Because the family is out of touch, this was a bit hard for my client to learn. We talked it through, did a bit of grieving, and recognized the importance of staying in touch with family. We also discovered that Jacob’s Father filed Chapter 7 Bankruptcy shortly after Jacob’s Mother died.
I am not going to reveal here what my client learned when she got back in touch with Jacob’s family except that public record did show that the family struggled after Jacob’s death. They are still struggling some.
Family is a structure that supports us in ways we may not realize until the structure is shaken or broken in some way. The death a a family member, even a young person not yet financially independent, causes shock waves that affect everyone on so many levels.
I do see my roles as helping people find the meaning in their family history. I’ve worked as a chaplain and know the value of grieving. We do not grieve in a vacuum. Support in grief is important, whether it is learning that it’s too late to re-connect with Aunt Marie in this realm, or finding out that you are descended from someone who held people enslaved in the 1800s.
Honoring our ancestors adds meaning to our lives. I didn’t know you, JJ, however your life continues to be a blessing to mine…