Sometimes I look at old family photographs and count how many people are gone. The number is significant. I am only 32. How have I lost so many people in such a short time? My family has dwindled. Even recent pictures show people who should be here but aren’t.

I feel this loss most acutely at the end of the year. The family holidays of my childhood were large affairs. They were never extravagant or glamorous. I was born into a proud middle-class family in New York – lower middle-class by some definitions. Work was a virtue, not a burden. No one had the money or desire for hors d’oeuvres that weren’t simple pretzels or supermarket cheeses on crackers. No one drank very much. Our meals were hearty and plentiful but basic, often eaten off paper plates.

Those gatherings seem far away. I picture them as black-and-white archival footage: I am watching a silent newsreel of another person’s life.

Now I have one grandmother left. Her 95th birthday approaches. She’s in good health, but is beginning to show some signs of decline. Of course, one expects one’s grandparents to pass away. There is something honourable and noble about living into the eighth or ninth decade and then departing the earth. It feels just and natural.

Other deaths feel like violations, as if some shady repo man had rifled your private things and taken a family heirloom. He took my cousin Marion, whom I thought of as an aunt because she was decades older than me. She died a few years ago, after a long illness. I can still hear her voice; it reminds me of my childhood. She was older, yes, but not old enough.

The repo man also took my first cousin and close friend Michael, who committed suicide in 2013 aged 40. He did it not long after we had a bad argument, which we never resolved.

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