New traditions: in memory of Alex Trebek

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in my own grief, the Jeopardy! host meant so much

After my younger sister Rachel died in 2019, being at home was a nightmare. Around every corner they were trinkets and memories of her life. There was so much we all had to say and do, and yet, none of us had the heart to.

The police had come to notify us of her death. In that moment, with the slew of police officers and victim services representatives, I knew home wouldn’t feel like home to me anymore – and it didn’t.

Our home turned into a centre of operations. It was where we stored flowers, food, and cards, it was where we filled out paperworks and planned her funeral. It was where my mother signed the cremation paperwork and where my father called the coroner’s office, hoping they would know what had happened to our little girl.

In the days and weeks following a tragedy, your home no longer feels like you. Around every corner in our home was a picture, memory, or belonging of hers. Every waking moment seemed to be fixated to planning the funeral, ushering in the heaps of gifts that came in through our front door, and waiting.

Home hurt. We didn’t want to be home anymore. We didn’t want to talk, or eat, or entertain ourselves. We didn’t have the heart to. There was nothing to say that wouldn’t tire us or put a strain on our hearts.

That is where Jeopardy! comes in.

One of the firmest pieces of advice our grief counsellors had given us was to “start new traditions” after Rachel’s death. It wouldn’t be replacing the life we had with her, but adapting to life without her. It would be making it survivable. That little game show was our first new tradition.

Instead of eating at the table in pained silence, we would sit in front of the TV, queue up our pre-recording of Jeopardy! from that night, and hit play. We’d laugh, yell at the TV, and place bets on who we thought would guess the most right answers (hint: it was always Dad). In our first few months of watching, we screamed in excitement when “Regina, Saskatchewan” was the answer to Final Jeopardy and laughed at the lack of Canadian geography knowledge. But most of all, we glowed seeing Alex Trebek on our screens once a day, every day, during the worst period of our lives.

It was the month after Rachel passed away, March 2019, when Trebek announced his cancer diagnosis. I remember the silence in our home – unspoken pain – before we continued on our days. We were worried. Our family was more than accustomed to worst case scenarios. All we could do was hope.

Up until the very end, every day he hosted Jeopardy!, Trebek wore a smile. Even on the days when he seemed sick, or sounded off, he was there on that stage, just wanting to make people smile. He never accepted defeat. Even towards the end of 2019, when Trebek announced that he was re-entering chemo, he took it with stride.

Trebek lived a full life. He was a Canadian, born in Sudbury, Ontario, and received his American citizenship in 1998 when he was still hosting for the show. He ran with the Olypmic torch in 1996, had two children, Matthew and Emily, with his wife Jean, and survived a heart attack in 2007. In 2001, he even shaved his “famous moustache” that he’d had for almost 30 years as an April Fool’s joke on air. He was a man who lived to make the world learn, think, and smile. He made the world smile more than anything.

Alex Trebek passed away on Nov. 8, 2020 – my mother’s birthday – at his Los Angeles home with his family. He was surrounded by love and comfort, and was able to spend his last days doing what he loved most: swinging in the hammock in his backyard with his wife. He passed pain free, but left behind a legacy that words cannot do justice.

In his own words: “My life is what it is, and I can’t change it. I can change the future, but I can’t do anything about the past.” His entire life was a testament to such a statement. Toward the end, as Trebek grew ready to stop his cancer treatments, he’d stated he wasn’t afraid of death. In his book, he states that he has lived “a good, full life.” Even in his memoir, he claimed that the only regret he may have would be dying without grandchildren; a testament to the joyful perspective Trebek brought to every facet of his life.

Life is all about making new traditions. For my family, it began with Jeopardy! and Alex Trebek. Now, my family and I are able to be a part of Jeopardy! creating their own “new traditions,” ways of healing and moving forward with the hole in our hearts that will never be totally repaired.

For the remainder of 2020, Jeopardy! will be showing the last recordings of games he was able to host, up until Dec. 25, 2020. In the weeks leading up to that date, every day, anyone who pleases can turn on their TV and watch Alex Trebek in his element, the exact way he wanted to be before he passed. He wanted to make people smile, educate as many people as possible, and live the full life he’d intended to.

Alex Trebek’s death was devastating for me and my family. While we knew we would miss his presence every day on our TV, his death far surpassed that in significance for us. He was our mode of healing, connection, and recovery. He was a testament to exactly the kind of full life he committed to. He was able to bring peace to me and my family when nothing else did. Now, he’s able to bring peace to my sister, and bring her all the joy he brought us.

Most importantly, after bringing peace and joy to families for years upon years, he’s now able to bring peace to himself.

Taylor Balfour

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