Live for Thomas

A student’s reflection on coping with death


One night, I drove home from my friend’s house. For no particular reason, I was in a good mood. I thought of my cousin Thomas and decided when he was back in New York I should go out to dinner with him sometime. I smiled at the idea. Though I had talked with him on the phone a few times that year, I hadn’t actually seen him in person in a while. It would be nice to really reconnect with him sometime soon.

Two days later, Thomas died.

If a death is truly a tragedy, then the word ‘tragedy’ is an understatement. There are no words to describe a tragic death. Poets try, authors try, everybody tries. I won’t try.

A life isn’t defined by its ending. A life is defined by how it was lived and what difference it made. My cousin’s life was defined by a playful outlook and a free spirit, wrapped in the loving embrace of family.

The tragedy of death is for the living to deal with. When such a close member of your family passes away, you learn a lot.

He passed away two days before spring break ended last year. I decided to go back to Buffalo for three days before returning to Long Island for the wake.

Just one friend in Buffalo actually talked with me about what I was going through. She had been distant from me, but when tragedy hit, she was there in an instant. Meanwhile, the people I talked to every day couldn’t be bothered to talk to me about what I was going through.

My sister had friends drive down to Long Island from Boston and fly in from Syracuse to be there for her. It’s in the darkest times that you learn who your friends really are.

Being in Buffalo was a surreal experience. I went from class to class feeling completely disconnected from reality. It was as if nothing was wrong and yet everything was. Being in Buffalo felt wrong, like I had abandoned my family.

When I finally returned home for the wake, I felt a bit better only because I could help my family. I grieve through service. I need to be useful. I didn’t cry in front of anyone because I didn’t want to add any weight to the already unimaginable tons everyone was feeling.

Everyone else cried as expected. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t cry in front of them. I grieved privately, through poems, writing and prayer, but mostly poetry. I wrote about fifteen poems during that week. Two or three actually about what was happening, the rest just idle thoughts. The mind knows what it wants. Everyone grieves differently.

During the second day of the wake, my roommate texted me to tell me he decided he wouldn’t be rooming with me next year. This was the epitome of how my friends from school treated the situation. There were no supporting texts of concern, only one text of abandonment.

What I did have was the support and love of my family. All of us were there for each other. We laughed and cried together. We hugged and talked together. It’s a silver lining to the darkest of times. Death brings the living together. Humanity’s protest against the darkness is finding light and love in these times.

When the funeral came, I finally broke down and cried. The funeral is the final part of someone’s life. This was it. This was the last of my cousin’s time on Earth. We were laying him to rest forever. This was the end, or so I felt at the time.

Our family started following the motto ‘Live for Thomas.’

There’s nothing you can say to a grieving parent or sibling, but there’s so much you can do. Show love and care. If a friend loses a close relative, be there as much as you can.

A year has passed since my cousin’s passing and my family couldn’t be closer. My aunt and uncle, Thomas’ parents, come over regularly to watch a movie, to talk and to laugh. All of my cousins post photos of Thomas on Facebook, at least three a week. At every family gathering, we talk about Thomas and laugh about Thomas.

He is still very much alive and with us and he always will be as long as we remember him. We all live for Thomas now and as long as we do that, he will never truly be gone.

Daniel McKeon is a features editor and can be reached at