The phone calls I made to my dead daughter

Courtesy of the | By Georgina Rannard | Photo by Alison Rundle | Originally Published 09.02.2018 | Posted 01.19.2019

Nobody knows how they will react when a loved one dies – in the immediate aftermath or in the days, months and years that will follow.

Alison Rundle’s daughter Jenny died suddenly, nine years ago, when she was 25 years old. A week after she was buried near their home in Durham, England, Alison called Jenny’s mobile phone.

Of course Jenny didn’t answer, but Alison heard her daughter’s voicemail. She left a message.

“Where are you? Where have you gone?”

She called again: “What are you doing?”

Alison simply did not believe her beautiful, headstrong daughter wasn’t there any more. If she could still text her, surely Jenny couldn’t really be gone.

Every day, for the next two years, Alison called her daughter’s bright pink phone.

Jenny Overton, aged 25, a few weeks before she died in 2009

She has never told anyone about the phone calls. They were private – an as yet uncut thread to her daughter – and Alison worried the habit made her sound “mad”.

Earlier this year she replied to a radio presenter’s tweet about finding secret texts from his 10-year-old daughter to her dead grandfather. “That kid is me,” Alison thought.

She agreed to tell her story about Jenny publicly, hoping it will help others struggling after the death of a loved one.

"'How dare you die!' I thought"

Jenny died from an undetected heart condition when she was living at home. “We got up in the morning and she was dead. It was appalling,” Alison explains.

“I’m quite an angry person – I call it my most accessible emotion. When Jenny died, I was really angry with her. ‘How dare you die!’ I thought.

“I kept asking her, ‘why are you gone? What happened to you? Where are you?’ I expressed all of this into the phone.”

Some of Alison’s family clumsily offered platitudes, saying Jenny’s death “was God’s will”.

“I couldn’t shout at home. Though I wanted to, I never did punch anyone, maybe because I offloaded on the phone to Jenny. ‘How dare they say that to me?’ I’d tell her.”

There was no set time to call Jenny, but Alison panicked if she found she went to bed without speaking to her.

Sometimes she cried into the phone, and other days she’d just talk.

Jenny Overton as a child.

Jenny’s phone was a basic pink up-and-down sliding phone, the type many people had in the 2000s. But on its answerphone, there was a permanent record of Jenny’s voice.

“It was a very abrupt and rude message actually. I’d think ‘why did she leave that message?’. I’d hated it when she was alive too. She was a lively, lovely girl – so full of herself at that age,” Alison recalls.

Before smartphones made video so easily recordable, it was common for people to say they wish they could hear a dead loved one’s voice “one more time”.

Alison didn’t feel that impulse. Calling Jenny wasn’t about bringing back a living essence of her. “I didn’t call hoping she would answer. I knew she wasn’t there. I can’t spend my life like that – it makes you ill,” she says.

"I had things to say that I couldn't say to anyone else"

Instead Alison found herself expressing and processing how she felt. The calls became a confessional.

“I had things to say that I couldn’t say to anyone else – that’s why I called.”

After the inquest into Jenny’s death concluded, a year later, the phone calls changed. Alison felt she couldn’t grieve openly any more because it upset those around her.

Instead she chatted to Jenny, passing on family news – “hi Jenny, your sister has had a baby”, and “we’re going on holiday to this place”, or “your friend has passed her driving test”.


Alison Rundle, 57, lives in Durham with her husband

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