When Patrons Die

When I got to work this morning, a coworker pointed out a local story about a couple who died over the weekend due to an apartment fire. In reading the story in the paper, it was someone who was a library regular that I had helped on a number of occasions.

I had known Joe for a couple of years. He was a student in my computer class as well as some one-on-one help sessions. Together we had created a resume, got it up on one of the New Jersey employment sites, and done some job searching. Over the summer he had come by to tell me that he had found a job; a few weeks ago, he came by to tell me how he was unjustly let go from that job. We had talked about finding another job; he mentioned that he was taking care of his wife afflicted with a short life expectancy prognosis from cancer. Joe was a handyman but without a Facebook account, so I posted it his details on one of the local business groups. He always asked if I was in when he came to check out his movies and I’d nearly always pop out of the back to say hi and see what was going on.

This is my first experience with a library regular passing away. I’ve had a coworker pass away from cancer and encountered death through relatives coming to the library to settle affairs and return items. But, as you can surmise from the previous paragraph, this was someone I got to know on a personal level. It just really hit me.

Rita Meade posted something today that really captures some of what I’m feeling at the moment. The public librarian life is not always glamorous, but I made a difference in Joe’s life. It counts. It matters. And in making a difference in Joe’s life, I made one in my own by remembering that what I do is important. Even if it has some wonky, weird, boring, and/or awful moments between the important times.

If I might ask a favor from my readers, I’d appreciate it if you would so kind as to share your own stories about library regulars passing away.

20 thoughts on “When Patrons Die

  1. Hi Andy- I’m sorry for your loss. It is hard to take when a regular patron dies.

    I worked for a hospital library and many of the regular patrons that came in on a regular basis were retired physicians. Some were as sweet as could be, and others were crotchety bastards that we loved anyway! In my three years at this library, three of these patrons died. It was sad because we usually found out about it as you did- from the paper. It just didn’t seem like we had a chance to really grieve, as we were not close family or friends, so we were not invited to the funeral. But, these patrons came in at least once a week, and were a part of our lives. And then, they suddenly weren’t.

    I take away that I was honored to know these patrons, and that I am proud that my library was somewhere they chose to be. You should be proud that you formed a meaningful connection with this patron, and that you helped him when he needed it.

  2. I didn’t have a regular pass away (at least, not one that I know), but I did have a regular recently lose her father. Despite being an adult now, she still calls me “Mr. Mark” or, occasionally, “Green Lantern” (partially because I wear superhero t-shirts on the weekend, partially because I lectured her on the history of Green Lantern when she questioned me about it).

    I did what I could, but that wasn’t much more than give her a hug until she didn’t need one, touch her hand in sympathy, and listen while she talked.

  3. Due to the nature of my library, we get a larger than usual number of those phone calls, emails, letters or other correspondence indicating someone has died. Because I work primarily with children, that’s not a call I typically get.

    Because of how much our library matters to the individuals we serve, providing them with reading materials (something they value highly), it’s not unusual for the message to include the note of how we made a difference in that person’s life or for our library to recieve donations in honor of the person.

  4. I worked for many years in a very small public library – in a town where you just about found yourself renewing a library user’s books while you both stood in the grocery store checkout line. I remember an elderly gentleman who lived alone and came in like clockwork. At one point we realized that we hadn’t seen him for a while and began to feel concerned. Since he lived in a neighboring town he didn’t actually have a card so we had not contact information but I called his local post office and related what we knew. Their carriers put the clues together to figure out who he was and called back a few days later to say that the gentleman had been very ill so had moved away to live with his son’s family. I tell this as an example of how connected we can become to our users.
    More recently, in the larger library where I now work, a group of older gentlemen met each morning in our tiny cafe to drink coffee and chat about every topic under the sun. We knew whether they lived alone or had spouses, heard their good and bad news about family illnesses, college acceptances and so forth, their favorite sports teams. Then one morning Ed did not come in. We learned that he had died of a heart attack the previous night. We miss his crinkly-eyed good humor and the two or three other “members’ no longer gather.
    Over these years I’ve lost a number of users – who were really friends or at least entertaining characters – the lady who always brought each of us a bottle of wine at Christmas, the poet disabled by a stroke who taught himself to paint beautiful abstracts with his left hand and others, the avid reader with whose attorney I corresponded as her estate was settled and her stack of library books returned to us. They are why I became a librarian – God bless them, every one.

  5. Recently we had a patron pass away. My first as a librarian. He was a patron that came in nearly every day to read the New York Times. Then he would check out older copies (2 weeks old or older). He always had an article he wanted us to read or a topic he wanted to debate. One of the first questions I remember answering for him was about the distance to different colleges (he was researching for his grandson).

    A few months before he passed he started to worry about not feeling well. He had a surgery his doctor wanted him to get done and he was concerned. I did a lot of research on the different procedures for him and made him up a little packet. At the time I grumbled a bit because he wasn’t satisfied with what I put together, but looking back I know he was nervous about the whole thing. The first few weeks after he passed it was odd not to have him come in to read the paper.

    The majority of our regulars are seniors. I know the longer I’m here the more likely it will be that this will keep happening. We are also having a number of our regulars move away (moving closer to their children or to warmer weather).

    We’re also seeing the circle of life. We have a number of patrons who have either recently had children or who recently learned they are expecting.

  6. I experienced my first patron death this past spring. Alma was a young girl of about 10 who visited every Saturday with her father. The entire staff got to know her and she was always our first visitor of the day. She would come in excited to pick out her books and movies for the week. The library was the first stop on a day of weekly errands with her father.

    Alma had Down Syndrome and one day she fell ill and passed away in a matter of hours. I remember sitting home on my day off and a coworker calling me to tell me. It was heart breaking. I remember getting very upset and couldn’t believe that it happened so quickly.

    We debated chipping in a purchasing a book in her memory, but weren’t sure how the family would feel about it.

  7. We had a patron for YEARS who came in very regularly. She was a little bit stinky, if I’m being honest, and always wanted to hug me. (A, I’m not a hugger and B, it would about make you gag.) She had other not-pleasant habits and quirks, too. She asked the same question so often that our computer classes were created in the late 1990s specifically because of her. She was a daily annoyance.

    And I have missed her and thought of her often since she passed away last year. I know she needed the library and considered us friends, and that we made a difference in her life. She formed my philosophy of library service: that we must help EVERYONE to the best of our ability with the resources we have, to deliver a positive library experience every time, and to try to be patient, nonjudgmental, and helpful always.

  8. I get heckled at work because I regularly check the obituaries. We have an older population of regulars that are typically on my radar. One of my regulars has been trained to check in with me from time to time, since I called him once just to check and see if he was still alive. I also send sympathy cards to the spouse and/or child when I can. I’ve found that the surviving family member appreciates the fact that the deceased patron had enough of an impact on our staff to be remembered, even if the surviving family member wasn’t a library user. While we are a very busy branch, I like the fact that we’re still able to make the connection with our customers and incorporate them into our library family.

  9. The branch I used to work in was located in a civic center. We had a number of homeless patrons including an older man named Hank. Hank was a former session musician who had worked with some incredible and famous LA area artists. He often played electric guitar on the plaza in front of the library with his little amp. He was something of a celebrity around the civic center.

    Hank was also an alcoholic. According to his stories, he’d been married six times and at one point in his life had several homes. By the time I’d met him, he was homeless, was losing his teeth and hair, and suffered from some kind of chronic illness that meant he was frequently in pain. Even though I personally had called 911 for him on at least two occasions and had many conversations with him, he was very forgetful and had difficultly remembering me.

    The most difficult thing was to watch him visibly decline, as I knew we would one day learn that Hank had died in his sleep outside of the library. It was such of feeling of powerlessness to know that this man needed some sort of saving that neither we nor (probably) anyone else could provide. Knowing that he’d lost everything — family, homes, and ability to play music at the end was just so sad.

    When Hank finally did pass away — in his sleep in the civic center — it was sad, but also almost a relief since it seemed like he was in so much emotional and physical pain.

  10. In October, a patron actually saw me at the hospital (for my father) and came over to see if all was okay. Her husband was also in surgery. All seemed well, but a week later I find out she came in to find me to tell me her husband had passed away due to complications. A co-worker, who was also close with this couple, joined me and we went to the visitation. I could tell it meant a lot to the widow.

    Loss is never easy. I have lost quite a few friends over the years — all in their thirties. Perhaps these experiences has helped me to deal with a patron’s death more easily.

    Bottom line, to be touched by a patron’s pasing is a sign of what community is all about IMHO. I have been a library worker for over a decade and oft think about finding my next gig. The main reason I have stuck it out is because I truly dig working around the public. Patrons help to remind me we are all family, even if it is only for an hour in a building full of books.

  11. My story is about the best reference librarian I ever known. He worked at my library but retired because of age.
    He passed away this summer so he was more staff than a patron but what I want to say is that even though he had not worked at the library for years – several patrons showed up at the funeral.
    He made a big impact on peoples lives – and I think that is important and beautiful -and like you describe Andy… I had the same feelings about that what we do matters – sometimes much more than we will ever know…

  12. A few years back we had a regular die somewhat tragically. He was a local fixture, a real character. Sometimes loud, often brash, but always laughing and smiling. His death was sudden and unexpected – the result of an accidental fall while working on his house. It was a shock and a major impact to several of us at the small rural library where I work.

  13. We had a long-tern library volunteer die about a month ago, and it was very upsetting–still is. She had been volunteering at the library for seven years, was friendly and smart, and just fun to have around. What made it doubly hard was the fact that she hadn’t been sick at all. A tenant of hers found her one afternoon, and had the courtesy to come to the library and let us know.

    After reading her obituary and realizing what a full life she had, I was even sadder that I hadn’t had more time to talk to her. It’s hard, and that was my first encounter with a patron dying as well.

    We put a bookplate in her honor in one of her favorite author’s latest–a book she had checked out when she passed.

  14. This was a very thoughtful post – which I’ve come to expect from you; however, this one in particular got me thinking about the different interactions we make with “others” (e.g. clients, patrons, students, and the like) where we work – for those of us who have worked in service or education for a while. For over five years, I worked in education and, while I never got news of any former student of mine dying (how awful would that be?) I have felt their loss since, of course, they’re not with me forever and some in particular left huge holes in my life because, simply, they can never be replaced and they were honestly wonderful and quirky and odd and brilliant. Now that I’m a librarian – new [and temporary] at my library and I have already a good handful of regular patrons – I wonder how the loss of those patrons either by death or by, simply, not coming to the library will affect me or if it will at all. It’s those connections that really matter when you work in service to a community.

  15. I run a small library in a village with a population of about 800. Needless to say, whenever anyone local passes away we know them and it’s a good bet that they have been in the library. I just found out tonight that one of our regular library kids passed away last night from an asthma attack. She was 11 years old. She lived on the same block as the library and I can remember when her Grandpa first started bringing her in. She couldn’t even walk yet. She was always allowed to come to the library because she didn’t have to cross any streets to visit us. I’m not sure yet how my staff will handle this.but I’m glad I read this article. It will help me show them that they had a positive effect on this little life.

  16. In my pre-librarian years I was a Volunteer then a Page at my local library. Harvey was a regular patron and the Treasurer of the Friends group. He was ancient when I met him, but for years he would come into the library in a jokey and jovial mood and would insist that I play chess with him. My boss would always let me because Harvey was such a dear member of our library community. When Harvey died it was a surprise despite his age, and I think the whole staff felt like we had lost an organ.

    It’s a weird thing about library buildings — civic buildings in general — they have very little memory. Nothing of Harvey remains in that branch; no plaque, few staff member who remember him, no real written record. But I remember where we would sit and play. Where he’d mostly beat me. It’s nice to remember Harvey. He was good.

    Thank you.

  17. I manage two libraries, both in towns of around 1,000 people, so get to really know our patrons. I have lost many over the years; some who have talked about being ill, some I have dropped books off to on my way home, and some I have hugged knowing I was seeing them for the last time.

    One sticks out in my mind, having read your story. He was in his 80s, lived alone after the death of his wife, and used to come in every fortnight to get a new books. We’d talk about authors with him, and about whether or not he’d liked the books, and help him choose something new. He always wanted our time and we gave him plenty.

    After about 3 years of regular borrowing he committed suicide by driving his car into a truck. The family came to see us a week or two later. It turns out he never read the books; he just wanted our company.

    What we do matters – always. Even when it hurts. I’m sorry for your loss, but glad you care enough for it to hurt – it says a lot about you.

  18. Perhaps others have had a different experience than the one Andy is talking about – the loss of a colleague – but for us it is the first time. Our IT Librarian, only 42 and the father of 2 young children, suffered a stroke on 12/28. We all prayed for him, for his wife and children and for his brother and aunt who are also colleagues. Sadly, Jerry passed on 12/31. In the past our library family has lost parents, siblings, even children – and several of our retirees have passed as well. But never a young, active colleague was excited about new collection responsibilities and about being his son’s Cub Scout leader and was a daily cheerful, joking presence in our midst. We are mourning him today. Thank you for letting me share.

  19. I left my position as a Library Director at the close of last summer, packed my bags and headed out on a nearly month long road trip across the country before moving to Northern Va to begin anew. I left behind one of my favorite library patrons who at an undetermined age (75 I later found out) had finally sold her summer home and would no longer be a summer regular. We were both heading onto new chapters. However when we said goodbye at my farewell party I never expected that to be the last time I saw her. We had grown close over the three summers I was her librarian and she one of my favorite people. A lovely German lady whose own husband had passed away several years prior and she had since become a snowbird. I found out from my library assistant upon returning from my road trip and prior to moving that she had found out this library patron had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. Of all the people, I sent a card–not a get well card, but a thinking of you card and waiting for the sad news that was sure to come in the following months. It came yesterday, I am so thankful for this posting you wrote. I have been struggling to reignite my passion and slowly it has been coming and in knowing how what we do touches the lives of people sometimes on a more personal level is one of my favorite parts of being both a librarian and a human. However despite this, getting the news just hit me hard. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this delightful lady and wish I had gotten a chance to see her just one more time.

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