We Only Know Them in Death

Emmett Till
Emmett Till

Recently I heard a newscaster describe George Floyd as “a man we only know in death.” It is one of those obvious statements which should cause us to pause and consider how we define those who die. The same can be said for many of the people who lived “normal” lives but whose death gives them a notoriety they would have happily avoided. In the case of Floyd and so many other deaths in recent years, their notoriety is because they were killed due to the color of their skin. It is a cycle that has played out for decades and will probably continue. Emmett Till was just 14 when he was lynched for possibly “flirting” with a white woman in 1955. 14 years old! The outcry was strong, yet here we are 65 years later again protesting the murder of a black person. And people only came to know Emmett Till in his death.

What does it mean to be known only in your death?

Annie and John Chapman
Annie and John Chapman
shortly after their marriage.

Recently I began reading an excellent book, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold. She wrote the book so that the women killed by Jack the Ripper would not be known for their deaths, but their lives. In it, we learn about the women who are inaccurately defined by their deaths. The story of Annie Chapman includes photos of a woman and her children as they moved from the lower to the middle class. Her upbringing was difficult as her family struggled with poverty, her father killed himself by slitting his throat, and she went to work to help her mother and siblings. This is a woman who went from serving as a maid to becoming a woman who employed a maid. But her alcoholism consumed her, despite several attempts to stop it, and she eventually lost her husband, family, and security. She was not a prostitute (most of the five were not), she was just out of money and opted to sleep outside one night as she did on occasion. She was killed in her sleep. The public only came to know her in her death and in death, she is defined. But she lived a life.

Those who grieve for many years can understand how one is known only after death. My son, Oliver, died when he was six years old and that was in 2013. Many people have come into our lives since Oliver died and they only know him in his death. Oliver becomes the little boy who died of cancer. George Floyd becomes the man who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes. Emmet Till becomes the boy who was lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman. And the women killed by Jack the Ripper become just “prostitute victims” of a serial killer.

Mary Ann and Oliver
Oliver and his mom just having fun.

I cannot speak for the others, but in my case, I don’t want my son defined by his death. I want him defined by his life. My son offered joy and happiness, hugs with a strength that belied his little arms, a rapturous smile, an intellect far beyond his years, and unbound love. I understand that most people didn’t know Oliver so they come to know him in his death, but I will not allow him to be remembered for dying. Often, when I tell people that I lost a six-year-old, they’ll ask “how did he die?” It is a natural question and one that I’ve asked others. But perhaps we should ask, “how did he live?” Why, after seven years, am I still grieving my son? Let me tell you about how he lived.

And we should do the same with the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. Or the deaths of those killed in a massacre. Or those dead at the hands of a serial killer. There is an honorable campaign to #saytheirnames which reminds us not to forget the people, but I say we need to go further and #knowtheirlives since people should not be known by their death, but by their life. The families that grieve are grieving a life, not a death.

3 thoughts on “We Only Know Them in Death

  1. Derek, such a simple statement but I never really thought it clearly til now: we grieve a life, not a death.
    Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think, too, of the hundreds, the thousands of deaths of black and brown people killed for no reason than the color of their skin–whose names we have never heard, so we don’t know them in their death or their life. But someone knew them, and someone loved them, and someone grieves them. And our nation should, too.


  3. Often, when I tell people that I lost a six-year-old, they’ll ask “how did he die?” It is a natural question and one that I’ve asked others. But perhaps we should ask, “how did he live?”

    Beautifully said.

    Liked by 1 person

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