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Imagining those we have lost

In the last few months, our extended family has experienced three deaths. Sudden and unexpected in one case — my daughter’s birth father and my first husband. Anticipated in the other two situations where multiple chronic conditions ravaged two of my brothers-in-law throughout much of the past year. There was a specter of COVID in all three circumstances, but it never materialized. It was never identified as a cause of death.

But I drew immediate parallels when I picked up the New York Times recently and it profiled the faces, names, ages of people who had succumbed to COVID-19. The photos and the accompanying comments from grief-stricken family members ran along the bottom of page after page of that day’s newspaper.

Later, I again thought of the recently deceased men in my own life when I encountered an article by Anakana Schofield, author of “Bina: A Novel in Warnings,” which explores the right to die. The article was titled, “Where Do the Dead Go in Our Imaginations?” The premise seemed to be that by vividly remembering and “reimagining” a friend or family member who is no longer in our lives, we honor their memory and acknowledge their spirit, strengthening our own repertoire of coping skills in the process.

The author uses the real-world example of reimagining a friend who “wallpapered life with generosity and love” and later committed suicide. Schofield recalls not the death experience but instead her friend’s penchant for voluntary service. She reports honoring her by introducing relevant community service projects into her own life.

I like the idea of using imagination to prompt the best recall of someone who has passed and embellish it with a specific action that honors them. I have had almost no contact with my deceased ex-husband for decades — my daughter knew him well through cross-country visits and weekly telephone calls. I am helping her learn about and imagine his high school and college softball prowess. She has enrolled her 8-year-old son in a spring T-ball program as a result.

I choose to imagine one recently deceased brother-in-law, a consummate Scrabble player, during the almost-every-evening iPad Scrabble games my husband and I have. I can sometimes envision his encouraging nod if I have a really good play. I am having a more difficult time imagining how to honor the third family member’s death perhaps because it’s so recent, so fresh, but I feel like this approach has merit and will keep exploring it.

I intend to share the “where does death go in your imagination” concept with my daughter and my widowed sisters-in-law. I would use Anakana Schofield’s own words in telling them about it: “This is where the dead go in our imaginations; they continue to live with us at the moments we are sad and terrified. They cheer for us. They give us unbelievable strength and the courage we lack to carry on in situations. They coax us through.”

Imagine if we sought out and shared tender outreach, ideas like these, with the families of the now over 520,000 people who died of COVID in the past year. Imagine that.

Sharon Johnson is a retired health educator. Reach her sharjohn99@gmail.com.