We kept the party going: A reflection on grief in ...

We kept the party going: A reflection on grief in 2020

Ain’t it something that the hardest -- and the best -- part of life is in living?

Our lives have been assaulted by COVID-19. Across Detroit, the losses have stacked up, measured in the thousands — and the city’s grief comprises hundreds of thousands of people grappling with what the pandemic took from them.

In my family, it ripped a giant from us. My cousin Jonathan David Parnell was absolutely herculean in spirit. He was just 50 years old when he died.

the author's cousin, Captain Jonathan D. Parnell, Sr.
Captain Jonathan D. Parnell

Jonathan’s death feels like armed robbery — vicious, unjustifiable and completely unfair. And because he’s so important to me, in the immediate wake of his passing, I was consumed with worry that he will be properly remembered. 50 years old ain’t old. I worried about how his youth in death would affect the way we galvanized his memory.

My mother taught me that remembering is something our family does well.

Fifty is the number of years ago that we lost two other behemoths of our tribe. 

A photo of the author's Aunt Joann
Joann Naomi Murray

My mother’s big sister, Auntie Joann, died on Nov. 1, 1970. She had recovered from rheumatic fever as a child, but not without it causing permanent damage to her heart. Auntie Joann worked on painting her kitchen the night before and when she finished, she laid down to rest. She was 20 years old when she went to sleep and never woke up again.

That same day, upon hearing the news of her passing, my grandfather, Joseph Nathan Parnell, Sr. — for whom Jonathan is named — had a stroke. He was helped into bed and stayed there until he was rushed to Henry Ford Hospital on Thanksgiving Day. He left the hospital one week later to be buried. 

Adding to the loss further, my great-grandmother died shortly thereafter.

It was a really rough time.

I’m not yet 50, so I didn’t live through it. But, I’ve always wondered how those who did could. 

My mother determined that this year, pandemic or not, our family would gather to remember them. Those memorial services were a reminder of the foundation my grandparents cemented. When trouble falls down like rain, we are not people who wash away.

So we gathered and we called out their names. My mother and her siblings glowed and were overcome with emotion as they shared memories of their sister and father. They recalled Joann’s fierce intelligence, confidence, warmth, protectiveness and stunning beauty. 

The author's grandfather, Joseph Nathan Parnell, Sr.
Joseph Nathan Parnell, Sr.

And they remembered Joe Nathan, a big man — in body and spirit. At well over six feet tall, he had big strong arms, legs and hands. He was a man of few words, so when he spoke, he meant it. As ferocious as he had to be when a strange man tried to break down the family’s front door in the middle of the night, he was equally as gentle with his family. He didn’t only tell his wife and children he loved them, he showed them every day with what he did and how he did it.

Something else that stands out in their recollections is this: Just before that wave of grief and loss, there was a season of great celebration. Auntie Joann was practically a newlywed and had just given birth to a son. Jonathan was a baby then too, doted on and adored. And my grandparents had just had another wedding anniversary, marking the occasion with a party.

It reminded me of those first weeks of January 2020. Were you like me — joyous and hopeful because you believed that 2020 was the Year of Perfect Clarity in which you’d receive everything you’ve dreamed? I was gonna dance on my life in the best way! 

But, things fall apart and life goes on. I learned that from Jonathan.

Jonathan was a cop — the great kind. He was the kind of cop that makes you grateful people like him still choose to serve, even knowing what the badge can mean in Black communities — our community. As a cop, he was always at high risk of death. 

Over more than thirty years in the Detroit Police Department, Jonathan showed out across several prestigious units including the Special Response Team (SRT), Tactical Support Services (TSS), Armed Robbery, Narcotics and Commercial Auto Theft (CATS). CATS was his passion. He led teams as a sergeant, lieutenant, and in his final assignment, captain of the Homicide Section. He survived so much, I decided he was destined to become an old man. I think we all did. 

At any rate, he often talked about what to do when he died and at the top of the list for his wife was one directive: “Put the F-U-N in funeral. Make it a stone cold groove.” 

That struck me as my mother was speaking at my grandfather’s memorial. He was rushed to the hospital on Thanksgiving Day in 1970. The house was full and food had been prepared for the table which was already set for dinner. As my grandmother hurried out with the paramedics to accompany my grandfather to the hospital, she yelled out, ““Ya’ll gon’ ahead and eat that turkey right now!”

The family listens as the author’s mother, Elaine Parnell-Taylor,
remembers Thanksgiving Day 1970.

Joann hadn’t even been gone a full month. But my mother remembered, “We all sat and ate that turkey. We actually ate the turkey and kept the party going for Thanksgiving.”

Likewise, Jonathan’s wife and sons followed his instructions and ensured his August funeral was the best birthday party he’s ever had. 

Invitation to Jonathan's memorial which was held on his 51st birthday in August 2020.
There was a deluge of rain. Then, the sun came out. As Jonathan requested, it was a stone cold groove.

Ain’t it something that the hardest — and the best — part of life is in living?

Much of the globe had a severe case of the 2020s. And the earth, with great audacity, is still spinning in 2021. 

My family has grieved, and will continue to grieve when the moments call for it. Storing up sadness, anger, frustrations and anxiety isn’t healthy. But, we will also have joy.

There’s power in our tears and there is power in our celebration. There’s power in remembering how to do both. I have my family, especially Jonathan, to thank for the lesson. 

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter with a heart for people and their stories. A WDET Storymakers Fellow, she also writes for nonprofits and individuals through her small business Keen Composition.