Tuesday, 19 January 2016


In the last years of his life a dear old uncle, usually a cheerful, humorous man, became depressed about one aspect of his life about which he could do nothing: the death of his friends. Scrutinising the deaths section of the ‘Telegraph’ became a daily ritual. Spotting one, he would nod slightly, acknowledging the loss. He would find his address book; perhaps telephone the spouse and offer condolences in his friendly, comforting voice, or – if the spouse had already died, then a soft pencil line might mark the fact that no Christmas card would be sent this year.

There comes a point in life when this begins to happen: attending more funerals than parties, noting more absences than new arrivals and expressing more sympathy on bereavement than on depression. But one little light shines through the gloom: when a death brings together a family which has scattered and lost touch.

I am a serious family history researcher, and have wasted more hours than I care to admit to in searching for lost relatives. They can be almost impossible to track – family historians refer to them as ‘strays’, but the meaning can be far deeper and sadder than this term.

Several years ago I undertook a thankless task, researching a family group with a widespread surname and few records, who had dispersed – some of them across the globe. It became a joke that when I was bored I would turn to this branch and attempt some research, only to sink into apathy at my computer and force myself to do something else. Then a stroke of luck led to a breakthrough and I rediscovered some of my husband’s cousins and an uncle, about whom he had wondered and worried for many years. We were back in touch and rediscovering the delights of shared memories as well as (in my case) making wonderful new friends. There was still someone missing though: the uncle was concerned (as my husband had been) as to the whereabouts of his other niece. She was someone quiet, shy and very private. For several years Christmas cards had not been returned, letters had been unanswered and no-one had heard from her. Since none of us lived anywhere near and internet searches proved fruitless, time moved on and life continued. The uncle died and was mourned, and still we knew nothing of her.

Then the other day a breakthrough came, but not one which any of us would have wanted. The cousin had been found, at home, by council workers. She had died at least three months previously.
In the jumble of one’s thoughts and the words ‘how’ and ‘why’ come the justifications and self-recriminations. ‘We all tried.’ ‘You can’t force a person to write back.’ ‘You can’t always find a person on the internet.’ Then: ‘we should have tried a bit harder’; ‘we should have gone there’. In the many telephone conversations which follow, I seize upon the word ‘depression’ – which somehow hasn’t come up before in the context of this woman. And there, I think, lies the answer. I’m not a psychologist, I have no such knowledge or training, but I have experience and age enough to conclude that this terrible illness can indeed lead to a kind of suicide through apathy and loneliness – not intentional or deliberate, but just as fatal in the end.

My article was not intended to be depressing. This death has had a surprisingly positive effect and one which I hope would please its perpetrator: it has reunited her family. They are back in contact, laughing at old memories and enjoying hearing familiar voices and shared history. She is alive again in their minds, as youthful and vital as she was before tragedy struck. Yes, they are also reliving grudges and dislike of long-dead elders, as we all do, but as we re-assess our younger days and what seem like happy, carefree times, so we re-inject a little of that vitality into today. Or so I hope!

SMCH 1944-2015

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