Why you Need to Gather Your Dead Around you

Presence needn’t be physical to provide solace and guidance

My dead grandfather keeps me alive.

Although he passed away in the mid-90s, his influence continues to inform how I live and how I manage the chronic depression that keeps trying to kill me.

Papi immigrated to France from Eastern Europe as a little boy for reasons my family has always refused to discuss or disclose. Naturalized in 1933, he came of age during WW2 and was promptly drafted in the French army. Alas, no sooner had he shipped out that he was captured by the Nazis and ended up spending the war in forced labor camps, a euphemism for all kinds of horror.

He didn’t stay in one place but had geographical coordinates that varied according to his captors’ needs. What he went through and witnessed was never up for discussion but he made sure his eldest son, my father, knew exactly where he had been.

To this day, Dad can reel off an impressive list of stalags; I went on to study German and have dedicated my life to building bridges between cultures. I was also raised in the most resolutely pro-European way possible, an upbringing that would come to define my entire adult life.

But my grandfather’s legacy doesn’t end with my internalizing the need to come together despite our differences. His legacy translates into a pragmatic attitude in the face of adversity; it is endurance, it is stubbornness, it is defiance.

It is life itself.

In my family, life is a gift you don’t squander and this knowledge alone has so far enabled me to deflect suicidal ideation. Despite losing five years of my life to major depressive disorder it is unlikely I’ll ever be free from the urge to end it all.

But how could I possibly take my own life when my grandfather not only survived but overcame innumerable atrocities? No matter how often he parasite in my head keeps taunting me, dying by my own hand would amount to betraying his memory.

I am quite incapable of doing so; this is how my grandfather continues to protect me from myself every single day.

My dead grandmother keeps me alive.

Born and bred in the village she never left until she chose to go into a nursing home because she had become unable to live alone, she was a no-nonsense country girl who ran the local grocery store and café with her sister. After the war, she fell in love with the former POW from Eastern Europe who had been told to move to the countryside for health reasons.

Thus ended Papi’s Parisian life; he never returned to the capital. Instead, he found work on a farm, settled down in my grandmother’s village, and together they had five kids.

Like her husband, Mamie was a paragon of practicality. Family and community were everything to her and she saw no need to venture further afield than her village unless it was for a specific purpose. And yet she was unfailingly curious about the world and the people in it, fascinated with my father’s travel adventures. Those began when he was sent out to French Polynesia for military service and haven’t stopped since.

I have fond memories of sitting on Mamie’s lap while she wrote letters, took care of paying bills, or even peeled potatoes. My parents would leave me in her care during the summer and she took me everywhere with her, always finding me something useful to do. I shelled peas and beans; I carried small bags of groceries; I dusted shelves; I plucked fresh herbs from the garden for dinner.

Mamie made sure the city kid I was would be cognizant with how country life worked and unafraid of nature. To this day, I can still recall the smell in her kitchen, the crispness of air dried laundry, her trademark perfume. Whenever I smell it on someone else, my heart does a double take.

She epitomized care, comfort, and common sense. I can still feel my little hand in hers and the sense of security it gave me. When she died, I couldn’t afford to go back to France to pay my last respects. As a result, grieving has been a patchy process that is taking a very long time.

Like Papi, Mamie moves into my thoughts when life gets overwhelming. I ask myself what my paternal grandparents would do and, based on what they taught me when I was a child, I generally manage to attain a modicum of clarity.

My dead friend keeps me alive.

Anthony and I met in the mid 90s and after a brief and disastrous romantic entanglement became the best of friends. Ours was a fusional relationship akin to being brother and sister; he was part of my family much as I still am part of his. Wherever I was in the world, he was that one person I could call upon at any time of day or night, knowing he would always be here for me.

He helped me navigate countless life trials as well as many cross country and transnational moves. Wherever he was, so was my safe haven, even during that time when he shared a tiny dollhouse of an apartment under the roof with a friend and they both put me up. There was no space at all and yet there was enough love to render the cramped circumstances irrelevant. It’s a reflection of the kind of person he was that his housemate opened her home to me no questions asked.

It is Anthony who taught me about unconditional love, the kind of deep bond that withstands absolutely everything. From financial comfort to crushing poverty via addiction and depression, we went through it all together albeit at different times. Our hardships often mirrored each other and no matter how deep down the rabbit hole we got, the other’s presence always provided succor.

When cancer killed him, a part of me died forever and yet he lives on in my every word. Anthony was the first person to believe in me more than I ever believed in myself and someone whose appetite for discovery and learning was relentless. Whenever he came across something new, he’d share it with me with boundless enthusiasm, which was always contagious.

No matter how challenging life got, Anthony delighted in being alive and enjoying the moment. To him, every little thing was a potential nugget of joy, be it a song, a ray of sunshine, a cup of yoghurt, a hug, or the works of a philosopher he had just come across.

He was mindfulness incarnate. Whenever depression threatens to crush me again, I remember the many times he talked me back to hope by helping me focus on the moment.

Non-judgmental communication was his answer to everything; we weren’t related by blood but we were kin and we still are.

Although they’ve been gone for some time, Papi, Mamie, and Anthony are always by my side. The love we shared continues to illuminate my path every single day and provide solace whenever I feel I cannot cope anymore.

No one ever really dies until there’s no longer anyone alive to remember them.

Humans just cease to exist in physical form but the imprint they leave on the hearts of their loved ones lasts a lifetime.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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