When a loved one dies, we often want to share their story with the world – and, in this day and age, sometimes the world is really listening.
When a loved one dies, there’s a variety of ways we celebrate their contributions to our lives. We hold services in their memory. We publish an obituary recalling their accomplishments and loves. We share stories and memories of our time together. Sometimes, we want to tell those stories to the world – and in these days of ubiquitous social media, sometimes, the world listens.
In 2016, the tributes that best caught the world’s attention weren’t all for the many major celebrities who died. Some of the most loving and popular tributes were for lesser-known people and even the folks next door. Their deaths – and the lives that proceeded them – became noteworthy thanks to the special ways their loved ones remembered them publicly. Here are nine tributes that particularly touched our hearts.
Alison Piepmeier: A professor, scholar, and author, Piepmeier was also well known in her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, for her column in the Charleston City Paper. The column that began by discussing issues in Southern feminism morphed in recent years to include Piepmeier’s personal life as she underwent a battle with brain cancer. She kept readers updated on her progress even as she continued covering feminist news, culminating in her deeply emotional final column, “Thank you for my beautiful life,” written from hospice. “I hope this won’t be my last column,” she wrote. “Perhaps, though, knowing that it might be is a gift I should accept.” Her readers wrote back in the comments, telling her how much her words had meant to them – and then the column went viral, picked up by Us Weekly and ABC News, bringing her story to millions.
Trinity Gay: Just 15 years old, Gay became the tragic face of gun violence in America after her death in October. The daughter of Olympic sprinter Tyson Gay, Trinity ran track too, and she dreamed of competing in the Olympics like her father as well as of becoming a surgeon. Her dreams were cut short when she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, killed in crossfire between two vehicles in a parking lot. Her story devastated millions in a year when stories of gun violence seemed to top each week’s news cycle. Many of the entries in her Guest Book, from friends and strangers alike, focused on her youth and innocence: “She was such a beautiful young girl and we can see the happy spirit in her smile. I am so sorry for your loss and pray that in her memory the violence will stop. She was so innocent. It is so sad. Prayers for her family.”
Katie and Dalton Prager: The young couple were called “The Real Life ‘Fault in Our Stars’ Couple,” their tragic story reminiscent of the one told in the recent book and movie. In John Green’s novel, two young people with cancer fall in love despite knowing of their terminal diagnoses. In real life, Katie and Dalton met while both were battling cystic fibrosis. They were 18 when they met, and two years later they married. That marriage lasted five years until their recent deaths – just three days apart. Their story captured the hearts of the public, and it was widely shared. Many signed their Guest Book with sentiments such as “Their love story sounded stronger than some couples experience in a lifetime.”
Joey Feek: Feek was one half of the Country Music Award-winning duo Joey + Rory, performing alongside her husband, Rory Feek. When she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014 – after successfully fighting the disease in 2004 – she began sharing her journey with her fans via social media, posting photos of herself, often with daughter Indiana. The response was massive, with her photos shared all over the internet as fans old and new cheered her on and prayed for her to beat cancer again. When Feek died in March, those same fans mourned her deeply. More than 11,000 signed her Guest Book, remembering her music and her inspirational life. One of the Guest Book’s regular signers is anonymous, going by the name “Angel Love” with the address “Heaven,” and imagining what Joey might be seeing from the afterlife as the months go by: “Spring has come then gave way to summer. Memories flood your mind and heart Rory as you work and harvest from Joey’s garden with Indiana close by. She can see the soft smile at a sweet memory of her as you work. Just know she’s here looking upon those morning glorious blue skies of Heaven. And she will forever love you and her girls till one day everyone will be together again.”
John Charles Bray: Bray, an obstetrician, touched countless lives as he delivered the babies of the Montreal area for almost 40 years. Hundreds of those children and their mothers signed his Guest Book to share their stories. Among the best were these two delivery room tales: “I have many fond memories of Dr. Bray delivering all five of my children, he even helped me name my first born son when I was considering two names, he (Dr. Bray) held my son up right after delivery and asked me what his name was. I told him the two names I was considering, he looked at my son and said, ‘He looks like a Shaun’ and so Shaun it is! Dr. Bray was the only doctor that I truly trusted and looked to for guidance.” “Dr. Bray was a fantastic doctor and a wonderful and gentle man. I will miss our chats about the Beatles, our Beatle card collections, and I fondly remember him drawing on my chart a diagram of the Bell Centre showing me where he sat during the Paul McCartney concert and wanting to know where I sat!”
William Ziegler: Sometimes a tribute gains national attention because it’s heartwarming, but others turn heads because they’re just plain hilarious. Ziegler’s was the latter. Written by his children, it condensed the irreverent fireman’s personality into a single funny paragraph that included gems like “Following his wishes, there will not be a service, but well-wishers are encouraged to write a note of farewell on a Schaefer Light beer can and drink it in his honor.” The obituary was widely shared online, and thousands of strangers signed Ziegler’s Guest Book. Many of the signers shared a sentiment similar to this one from Texas: “I didn’t know William, but he sounds like he was a hell of a guy. Wish I had known him. Thanks for the awesome obit. Sorry for your loss.”
René Angélil: Angélil was widely known as the husband and manager of international star Céline Dion. When he died after a battle with cancer, Dion planned a loving memorial service for him at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas – and, having seen Legacy’s Guest Book for her husband, she reached out to us with hopes of incorporating the Guest Book into the service. We provided kiosks where his loved ones and fans could sign the digital Guest Book, and Dion invited her fans to write in from around the world as well. More than 10,000 messages of love and support were ultimately written. Messages from strangers were mixed in with those from people who knew and loved Angélil: “Once I was depressed and during that time, I had a vision that I would perform with Céline Dion. Later I was performing at the Beacon Theatre for VH1’s Divas Live and wanted to tell Céline about the vision. I couldn’t get to her but met René side stage by accident. He took me seriously, had me audition, and made the vision come true. He always encouraged me thereafter whenever I saw him. Such a kind and powerful man. Thank You René!”
Kathleen “Katie” Schoener: Schoener was just 29 when she died by suicide after living with bipolar disorder for years. Her devastated father wrote a thoughtful obituary that commented on the way our society misunderstands mental illness and labels people who suffer from diseases like Katie’s. His powerful message was heard by many who shared the obituary, and he was able to reach even more when he spoke of his daughter’s death on Sirius Radio. Hundreds of friends and strangers signed her Guest Book, offering their condolences and thanking him for helping work toward lifting the stigma on mental illness: “I have never met you or Katie, but I learned about this beautiful obituary through Facebook. As someone who has struggled with depression since 2006, I have often found it difficult to speak to people about my illness due to the stigma and ignorance that surrounds it. Thank you for what you have written, thank you for helping to dispel the negativity surrounding mental illness, thank you for helping us.”
Pulse Nightclub Shooting Victims: The nation was shocked when we heard about a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub called Pulse. The horrific total was 49 dead, many of them young people out celebrating “Latin Night” at the popular gay club. It was the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in U.S. history and the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since September 11, 2001. In a year when stories of tragedy seemed to dominate the headlines, the Pulse shooting was almost too much to bear. But we responded with love and grief for the young lives lost, and tributes abounded online and in the real world.