Over these last thirty-seven years, we have heard in every conversation, news report, and documentary that 918 people died in the horrific tragedy in Guyana. Even acknowledging the number itself, though, does not come close to expressing the true loss of that day. Yes, those wonderful people of all ages and races lost their lives. Could there ever be a greater tragedy for them? It is unforgettable and unforgivable. We who lived in Guyana at the time and happened to survive have lived with survivor’s guilt and regret. None of us is the same as before our Peoples Temple experience. We have all suffered from their deaths and our survival.
Beyond the 918 dead, beyond the 80 or so others who survived – beyond the 1000 of us in Guyana – so many people have had their lives impacted by this tragedy. All of us had parents and grandparents, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, extended families and intimate friends, thousands upon thousands of people whose lives have been altered as well.
Each November, some of the survivors gather at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland to honor the memories of those who died in Guyana as well as those who have died since. Nearly each year, new relatives of those who perished also come. They tell us about the people connecting them to this place, and they ask questions. Some children never got to know their parents, some younger family members could never get their relatives to even talk about what happened, much less to try to explain it. They had to discover something about it themselves.
Many children have been catastrophically impacted, from the youngest survivors to those children raised by a relative or a friend. Children who were not part of Peoples Temple lost the chance to learn about their families from their parents, just as many parents were unable to teach their children, and to watch them blossom into adulthood.
Over the years, I have seen parents age painfully as the struggles of now being 37 years older begin, as frailties and disabilities lead to a loss of independence, and there is no child to help. For them, the depth of the pain doesn’t get any less. Instead it gets worse.
We often put the tragedy of November 1978 in terms of what the world lost, the deaths of so many who would have brightened the future for all of us. We sometimes lose sight of the private and personal losses each death represented to the families left behind.
All of the survivors moved out of the shadows at our own pace, and all have been cheered by their return to the Peoples Temple family. Now we need to recognize that the same struggle exists for family members. There is no right or wrong speed to come forward. We just need to be there when they feel the need to make that connection.
(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)