Gary C. Harrell
7 min readMar 8, 2024
[Photo Credit: DTM]

Everyone was barely awake, when my father met the state police officers at his front door, at almost six on that bright Sunday morning. When my stepmother heard him cry out, while she hurried to make herself presentable, she instructed one of my brothers to go downstairs and find out what was going on. Soon, she heard my brother, the oldest of their two boys, shouting, too, and she knew something was wrong. The state police had, in fact, arrived with news of a fatal accident that occurred roughly a mile away and claimed the life of their youngest son. The news was even more stunning, because, until they heard it for themselves, no one knew that my youngest brother was not even in the house. Suddenly, a typical Sunday for this pastor’s family was transformed into the unimaginable.

As word of my youngest brother’s death spread, family members arrived at a cousin’s home to share the tragic news. There, they found her on the kitchen floor. She would also be pronounced dead that morning.

The loss of a loved one, particularly when it is unexpected, can exact a heavy toll on someone. A person goes through a full range of emotions, when he or she is processing the shock of loss and working through the stages of grief. The entire process puts one’s state of mind to the ultimate test, and when the losses come in rapid succession, any person would be left dizzy, perplexed, broken, and exhausted. Such has been the case for everyone in the Harrell and Cockerham families in the days that followed the dual tragedies; and such has been the case for my immediate family, as our grief has been compounded, following the passing of another sibling just 1.5 years ago and a spate of health crises over the months since.

So much death and so many heartaches . . . My God. . .

To say that recent events have been grueling is an understatement. It has been difficult to focus on anything other than the thoughts of my family, and this is the first time I have sat down to write since my brother’s passing. Writing, however, has always been a cathartic exercise for me. So, I decided that this morning I would lend my pen to a missive about the importance of family.

People always say that family is all any of us really have, and that family members are usually your first true friends. I don’t dispute any of that. In fact, if a person is blessed with a good family, just as I have been, then it is in moments of trouble and tragedy when we realize how important our kinsfolk really are. In fact, all too often, we take these relationships for granted, allowing time, geography, or interpersonal barriers to separate us, and performing a flawed mental calculus to reassure ourselves that we have all the time in the world to get things right. Unfortunately, we don’t.

Let me repeat that so that is abundantly clear: we don’t have the time that we think we have. It is necessary for us to recognize that fact, because there is a lot that we need to get right with the people with whom we share a bloodline.

On Saturday, my family gathered at the steps of the historic Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church for my youngest brother’s funeral. In our tradition, close family members are typically the last people to enter the sanctuary before the funeral services begin. Here, dressed in black and shrouded in grief, stood my parents, my brother, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, and other close relatives whose relations, admittedly, I still haven’t figured out. As I glanced around the crowd, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen so many of these people in years — and some hadn’t seen each other in an even longer time. We were not doing enough to keep tight the bonds that united us, and the fact that we all only seemed to come together this way for a funeral was ironic.


My families — the Carters and the Harrells, along with, by extension, all of the Scott and Simmons families — are proud people hailing from a quiet and wooded corner of Southwest Mississippi. These were people of deep faith and hard work. Their lives were spent in the fields, on the farms, and most certainly inside of the church; and they bestowed upon their lineage good examples of humility, love, kindness, loyalty, faith, discipline, and leadership. It is remarkable to know that from them came men and women who would eventually go out and change the world in so many ways. But none of us would be who we are, or have achieved what we have, if it was not for these great people and the values they imparted upon us.

Even still, things happen. The egotism and selfishness of one can undermine the significance of the whole. Words get weaponized, and feelings get hurt. The loss of a loved one becomes too much to endure and prompts someone to isolate themselves from his or her fellows. The rigors of life keep our calendars filled. Maybe, too, the symbols of familial bonds get lost over time. Whatever the reasons, our bonds fray, we grow apart, we lose sight of our shared values and common purpose, and we become family in name only.

For that reason, we should reconsider the way we think about family — not just for the sake of those immediate members in our own households, but for the sake of the large group of people with whom we share our history. By actively showing reverence for our past, by displaying kindness and respect to our family members in our present, and by offering support to those who represent our future, we can do our part to continue legacies that are bigger and more extraordinary than we could ever create on our own. As the author Alex Haley correctly pointed out, “In every conceivable manner, the family is the link to our past and the bridge to our future.” Indeed, without an understanding of the importance of family, too many of us would be ungrounded, jaded, reckless, or lost.


To be sure, maintaining these ties can be difficult. All too often, conflicts of one hue or another keep family members apart. But times of trouble remind us that these disputes aren’t as important or consequential as we make them out to be. In fact, we would be well-served to remember these words (written elsewhere) about forgiveness:

We all make mistakes, and perhaps the most damning mistake of them all might be our unwillingness to forgive others. When we hold onto grudges from past hurts, we expose our hearts and minds to a form of needless torture, the kind that traps us in a place where we treat the past as the present and the future as unchangeable and less important than both. (gh)

In any relationship, and particularly in family relationships, reconciliation is crucial, and we must set aside our own egos to identify what is really fueling the grudges and the anger. Yes, fear tells us that it is better to wallow in that anger than suffer the discomfort of an unpredictable conversation. But there go our fears — lying to us, again . . . Deep wounds only heal when they are treated. So, when two parties come to the table in good faith, they can let out their grievances in a way that is civil, awareness-building, and reconciling. And while it might take more than one of those conversations for the parties to build trust, what we do know is that both parties will feel better and freer because of their effort.

Maintaining our ties as a family can also be more challenging when the symbols deemed central to the family are gone. From an anthropological perspective, symbols evoke meaning and memory; they affirm a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. That is why living symbols like an older matriarch or patriarch humble us; that is why we covet tangible symbols like family homes or heirlooms. Outside of the family, these symbols might not have significant value, but for those in the family, these symbols encapsulate all that is good about their family experiences. And while they cannot keep aging family members with them forever, some people will understandably seek to maintain tangible expressions of their bond as real-life manifestations of their family’s existence and legacy. The symbols — the house, that tractor, this land, those photographs — are akin to the forbearers saying, “Yes, we were here. We have a story to tell.” The symbols help us find ourselves and bring us together, under one banner, as we achieve our goals.

Families must also mute the fallacy of fierce individualism. In fact, speaking as an enterprising person of color, one lesson that I have learned is that we are stronger together than we could ever be apart. After all, ours is a history replete with examples of family members supporting one another and communities coming together to create opportunities for themselves, when none existed for them elsewhere in the world. The same mindset must be one that is resurrected to lift our fellows and to advance our families’ legacies. That means support; that means mentorship; that means collaboration; that means employment; and that means investment.


The loss of my youngest brother, along with so many other tragedies that have befell my family, provide a teachable moment for those of us willing to learn. This moment tells us that, in weal and woe, the ties that bind our families must hold. However, those ties can only do so if we invest the time and energy to cultivate and strengthen them, looking beyond what might benefit our self-interests, and making decisions for the greater good of our larger families. If we cannot do this, if we allow ourselves to become family in name only, then we will have done a gross disservice to the legacies of those who came before us, while depriving a complete understanding of destiny to those who will come after us . . . The selfless choice is a clear one. I truly hope that my family will join me in making it.