Death in the Family Tree

This is a post I wrote a year ago but couldn’t bring myself to publish at the time:

A rose and a bookThe death of a family member is always hard. The closer you are to them, the harder it is. But being a genealogist adds a different element to the grieving process and one I’m still not fully grasping.

My aunt passed away today. For reasons of geographic distance and complicated family issues, we were not close and I hadn’t seen her in many years. My memories of her are through a child’s eye. My experience with her in recent years has been more genealogical, researching her to ferret out the details on the enigma of her mother — my grandmother. But I loved her.

As anyone with siblings can tell you, no matter how distant you may be, how many years pass, losing them is hard.  Genealogically, the death of a family member is like a library burning down.  Sometimes that library happens to be filled with memories of you as well as your ancestors. She will never again be able to shed light on Grandma’s life nor her own or give me a different perspective on my own memories.

The genealogist in me knows there are things that must be done — it’s part of my role in documenting this family. I feel like Anya in the BtVS episode, “The Body.” What am I supposed to do? She’s here one day and the next, there’s just a shell. In this episode, I am not the protagonist — I am a supporting player. I am the person who needs and wants to be supportive. My cousins are dealing with far more than I am, hundreds of miles away. But there will come a moment when I enter today’s date into the family tree. And that finality wouldn’t scratch the surface of my experience with her.

It wouldn’t explain why when I referred to others, “Aunt” rhymed with “can’t” but when I referred to her it rhymed with “want.” Entering todays date in the database doesn’t give the story of how she was the person who introduced me to sushi, something a child born and raised in California’s Central Valley during the 1970’s and 1980’s would hardly have access to or even know about.

She had moved from Los Angeles to a few blocks away from us, and when she couldn’t find sushi locally,  my mom helped her find the fishmonger with the freshest fish. She purchased nori and special rice and vinegar and a rolling mat, so she could make her own. Through those homemade rolls, she was one of the special people in my childhood who opened my eyes to a whole world outside of what is, despite its census numbers, a very small town. For this, I am eternally grateful.

How do you do it? How long has it taken you to add that final date in the record of a loved one? Did you do it quickly or wait until some of the pain had subsided and time had started to heal the wound? Was it wrenching or cathartic?

About kimcotton

Professional Genealogist, specializing in 19th & 20th Century U.S. records, particularly California & Connecticut, with a dash of North Western Mexico.

One thought on “Death in the Family Tree

  1. We all deal with death of a close family member differently. It took me several months to ad my maternal grandmother in my database. Thanks for posting this.

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