In Memory of Graham

by donnak on December 2, 2015

Graham_brown_web pacman_smallLast week I received something writers dream about, an email from a reader letting me know how much she enjoyed my non-fiction narrative, Finding Matthew. The first paragraph of her message summarized my goal for the book.

Anne MacLellan said she appreciated how I spoke of Matthew’s personality and his relationships with others. So many people, she said, who’ve never known a person with special needs, don’t understand how much can be learned from them.

Anne’s son, Graham, died suddenly July 15, 2015, at age 25 from SUDEP (Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy).

Throughout his life, regardless of the usual list of nay-saying professionals, Graham learned to express his needs and wishes, demonstrate his sense of humour, and most of all, to confirm his sparkling intelligence.

Graham used stencils to spell out his name. He utilized the Picture Communication Symbols method, (google: speaking4autism) and the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). His abilities were enhanced by the Gotalk Communication Device and talking the dictionary.

How ingenious, perceptive and amazing, given Graham’s diagnosis of autism and mood disorder.

For the last 13 years of his life, Graham lived in a wonderful group home where he was respected, honoured and loved. He had a vibrant personality and was full of life with a delightful sense of humour.

This post, in honour of this week’s United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities, celebrates the life of Graham ‘Grambo’ Brown, a young man of talent, accomplishments and mischief. The following memories are from family and friends.


Graham taught us so much through his love of life, even though his enthusiasm could get very noisy at times! With his ability to convey feelings, perceptions and wants despite being a non-verbal person, his sense of humour and his unique “Graham-ness”, he has been our greatest teacher ever.

When Graham was about 10, his dad took him downtown. They went into a variety store where there was an old free standing Pac Man game. Graham remembered it clearly and twelve years later, drew the remarkable picture at the top of this post.

A part of Graham’s daily routine that he loved, were his crayons. Due to incomplete motor control, Graham preferred to direct a companion to colour for him. He’d choose a shade and hand it over. Then with his finger, he’d trace the area to be coloured. When the page was completed, he’d pick the purple crayon for the background.

Graham’s loud sounds of approval signaled a good job. To finish the piece, he’d spell out, by pointing to a stencil, “1 2 3 Graham Brown”, which the companion artist would print on one side of the page and “Graham Brown”, on the other.

Graham’s crayons were always laid out in precise order and he’d signal if one was missing. Since no one else had his remarkable visual memory, (was it the orange-red or the red-orange or the scarlet that was missing?) he’d point to the missing colour using a swatch created for that purpose. In Graham’s art book, specific pages were assigned to all his artist partners.

Graham loved cut and paste work. He spelled out the words for staff to print. Next, he’d tape the words on the walls of his room. Many layers would accumulate before he’d decide to start over.

Graham’s favourite things included Tigger and the three Piglets, his stuffed lovies, which were his constant companions and the subject of intense searches when they got misplaced. He loved books and being read to, especially by his dad and sister. Graham’s Social Story Books for Autism helped him understand others expectations, establish routines and make smooth transitions.

Graham’s Thomas backpack went everywhere with him. Thomas the Tank engines were also a favourite. When visiting, Graham liked to wear multiple layers of clothing, regardless of the weather. He particularly loved wearing one hockey shirt when his family spent time with him in his group home. The day after family visits was movie day when Graham enjoyed Disney videos.

On his memorial page, workers posted loving messages, fond memories and incredible insight into Graham’s compelling charm. One said she loved spending her days with him, no matter how long they took. Another recalled that Graham opened her eyes to a world she never knew existed. Even though autism takes hold in many different forms, she said, it doesn’t mean that anything is damaged inside. She loved that Graham was able to joke around, hold a conversation and let you know exactly what he wanted.

Another staff member, at first intimidated by his six foot ten inch height, soon found a gentle giant in Graham. She loved the way he rolled his hot dogs in his shirt, peeling off the skin before eating them. The way he jumped and twirled and screeched at the top of his lungs while watching his Disney movies. How he took her hand to slow dance to one of the Disney songs. How he made her feel special by seeking her out because he didn’t want anyone else helping with his colouring and cut and paste. Their walks to the mailbox, always holding hands.

Yet another said she loved Graham’s ability to communicate using an array of vocalizations. Her favourites were his hisses and clicks and his mischievous chuckle when he had gotten the best of her.

Graham’s family realized that he had never been able to say “I love you”. They taught him the signs for I love you, and Mom loves Graham. Anne, Graham’s mother, would sign the I love you message then prompt him to respond. He’d often start with I love and point to his dad. Anne would then ask, “Who else do you love?” To tease her, he’d answer I love Graham, accompanied by a cute smile. When Anne asked again, the answers referenced his sister and brother-in-law. Eventually, Graham would tell his mother he loved her, giggling at his joke.

Graham Brown brought a profound love to his family which they would never have experienced without him. At the same time, he typifies the complexity that is every person. The depth. The honesty, the fun loving spirit. The look at me, I’m important. All six foot ten of me.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne MacLellan December 2, 2015 at 10:27 pm


Thank you for sharing this wonderful post about Graham. Nonverbal people like Graham and Matthew have so much to teach us, if were are open to listening to them.


Donna Kirk December 3, 2015 at 7:52 am

Thank you for introducing me to Graham, Anne. I think you’ll agree that our common goal is to encourage people to listen to Graham and Matthew.


Michelle Sim December 3, 2015 at 10:51 am

Thanks so much to both Donna, and Graham’s mom. Although my son Paul is verbal, his frustrations over the years have been difficult to understand but this I know: I have never been loved more than I have been by Paul. What a gift our sons are! Thanks for sharing ladies.


Donna Kirk December 3, 2015 at 1:31 pm

Paul is indeed a wonderful young. And, another young man of great accomplishment.


Crystal December 3, 2015 at 12:23 pm

It’s so great to hear other connecting and sharing their lives with one another. Graham sounded like a truly wonderful young man, as was Matthew. Thank you for sharing your family with us reader!


Kelley December 3, 2015 at 2:18 pm

What a lovely tribute. I wish I could have met Graham. His sense of humour is evident in the “I love you” story and I’m sure we could have shared more than a few drawing/colouring sessions.

It’s so important that the language that people like both Graham and Matthew develop to communicate with us is learned by those around them, and, more importantly, that those people who learn their language share it with others. Just because it’s not a known language doesn’t make it any less valuable.


Donna Kirk December 3, 2015 at 9:15 pm

Thanks, Kelley. Love Mom


Susan Walker December 3, 2015 at 3:32 pm

Thank you for sharing Graham’s story with us.


jennifer mook-sang December 3, 2015 at 5:56 pm

what a lovely tribute to graham. thank you both for sharing, donna and anne.


Donna Kirk December 3, 2015 at 9:17 pm

Thanks for being so loyal to my posts, Jen.


Julie December 3, 2015 at 8:40 pm

A beautiful heartwarming life story. Thank you for sharing Graham’s story.


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