“You write obits? I bet that’s depressing.”
It’s not, I tell people again and again. It’s actually, mostly, really life-affirming.
For the last four years, I’ve written obituaries about members of our community. Those stories are never about how people died. They’re about how they lived (which, yes, happens to be the name of a free weekly obits newsletter I write. You can subscribe here).
This year, a few themes emerged from the lives of a wide range of our neighbors. Here are three of them.
There’s room in grief for joy
I try not to reach out to family members and friends immediately after a death. There’s a fog that settles over our brains and so much to do to make final arrangements. Still, even a month after someone has died, that grief is new and heavy.
In February, I got a better understanding of what grief looks like after decades.
Curious about the “in loving memory” ads I saw each week while scanning the obits section, I decided to reach out to a few people who’d taken them out to learn more. I also checked in with the Tampa Bay Times’ obits department. Senior obituary representative Wes Parker shared the name of a man who’d been taking out those ads twice a year for more than 20 years.
Stan Kozma, the man behind the memorials, shared more about the woman he loved, Kristi Michael. He takes the ads out at Christmas time, her favorite time of year, and for her birthday. To save money, he now writes them as haikus.
Those ads aren’t just for him, Kozma told me. He sees them as a space for anyone to pause and remember someone they loved. Grief, he told me, is an odyssey. And remembering the people we’ve lost can include joy.
It only takes a few people to make things happen
Normally, I’m writing about people shortly after they die. In the spring, I learned of a woman who died in 1953 and the amateur historians who wanted people to remember her. When I started clicking through news archives, I understood why.
Gertrude Warnick was a practical nurse at Largo’s Littlefield Nursing Home when, in 1953, a fire killed her and 32 other people. News articles and eye witnesses reported that Warnick died while trying to save her patients.
At first, she was hailed as a hero. Then, the nursing home owners cast doubt on her role and said she never made it out of bed, possibly intoxicated. Then, she was forgotten, left in an unmarked grave in Clearwater Municipal Cemetery.
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David Barmore, a volunteer with the Dunedin History Museum, discovered Warnick’s name while working on a preservation project. He learned of her story. That story found its way to Patricia Mastry, whose father was the photojournalist on the scene that day. She contacted me.
In April, I published Warnick’s story. Immediately, a few people emailed wanting to help get her a headstone. In October, they did it, and I got to tell the story of the people who stepped up to make that happen, from the newspaper reader to the monument company owner to the trolley company CEO.
What you believe in matters
Three very different stories this year showed the power of what you believe in, however you express it.
Jerry Rawicki, who died in February at 94, spent his life searching for the man who saved him during the Holocaust. When he was a teenager, Rawicki escaped from the ghetto in Warsaw, Poland, and found a group of boys at the beach. One of them gave him shelter and food until Rawicki could escape.
He built a new life in America but always kept looking for that young man. In 2005, he learned the young man had been hanged shortly after Rawicki escaped.
Rawicki got that young man’s name added at Yad Vashem in Israel, a tribute to people who put their own lives in danger to help Jews. And every day, in that young man’s honor, Rawicki recited the Lord’s Prayer in Polish.
In June, I wrote about Derrick Sampson, a longtime letter carrier for St. Petersburg’s Meadowlawn neighborhood who died at 51. He didn’t live there, but Sampson was deeply connected to the people who did.
He checked on the elderly.
He visited with the homebound.
He saved the surprise of a pandemic proposal when the ring came in the mail.
He monitored holiday decorating progress.
He found a lost cat.
And he filled the sidewalks with music from his portable speaker.
Sampson tended the community in Meadowlawn, he cared for his parents, grandmother, aunt, wife and children. And he built a family with fellow letter carriers.
He could have delivered his route each day, head down. Instead, the letter carrier became part of that neighborhood.
Ethan Weiser was born with his hands folded in prayer, his mom said. And in just 15 years, he lived with conviction.
Weiser, who was hit by a car on his way to his bus stop in August, carried his faith with him through middle school and high school. In a time when many teens are blending in, Weiser stuck to what he believed. He found places to be himself with his family, his church and through music.
I have a 15-year-old. Fifteen is messy. It knows everything. It’s the border of carelessness and responsibility.
Like all 15-year-olds, Weiser was still becoming himself. But that self was already taking shape as a helper, a singer and a believer.
Sign up for Kristen Hare’s newsletter and learn the stories behind our obituaries
Our weekly newsletter, How They Lived, is a place to remember the friends, neighbors and Tampa Bay community members we’ve lost. It’s free. Just click on the link to sign up. Know of someone we should feature? Please email Kristen at email@example.com.
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