Lorraine Millar, Resilient in the Face of Tragedy, Dies at 95

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

In December 1979, Lorraine Millar’s 30-year-old son, John, died of cancer. The next month, her 24-year-old daughter, Michele, skidded on black ice while driving, turned into an embankment and was killed instantly.

One of her two surviving children, Marilyn, spiraled into depression. “Why am I still here?” she asked her mother during a phone call.

Ms. Millar responded with a letter. “She said, ‘You have two choices,’” her daughter, now Marilyn Altavilla, recalled. “‘You either give up and let your life wither away, or you become a survivor.’”

Ms. Millar made her choice clear: She was going to survive. Within weeks after her second child’s death, she moved from Connecticut to South Carolina to take on a new role running the human resources department of the plastics manufacturer she worked for. She took along her husband, whose bipolar disorder had forced him to leave his job.

“I felt if she could live through the death of her children, two children, and continue to forge ahead, that she was going to be my role model,” Ms. Altavilla said. “I knew that I was going to become a survivor like my mother.”

Ms. Millar died on Nov. 25 at Evergreen Woods, a nursing home in North Branford, Conn. She was 95.

The cause was Covid-19, Ms. Altavilla said.

Lorraine Mae Johnson was born on May 7, 1925, in Baker, Ore. Her father, Chris, ran a grain storage business he had inherited from his father; her mother, Blenda (Samuelson) Johnson, taught school in North Powder, the tiny nearby town where the family lived. Lorraine’s graduating class had seven students.

In 1946, at a dance in Walla Walla, Wash., where Lorraine attended Whitman College, she met Jack Millar, a Chicago boy stationed at a nearby military base. Less than three weeks later, they were engaged.

They married that summer. Ms. Millar moved with her husband to Chicago and missed graduating from college by just six credits.

In the mid-1960s, Mr. Millar’s mental health deteriorated, and he began staying up at night and sleeping for days on end, hurting his performance at his advertising job. Ms. Millar abandoned her life as a homemaker to take a job processing health claims at an insurance company.

One Sunday morning in July 1988, Mr. Millar said he didn’t feel well, and Ms. Millar went to church without him. She returned home and noticed that the garage door, unusually, was closed. She looked inside and saw the car, which had overheated, was on fire. Mr. Millar was sitting inside. He had killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Ms. Millar retired the next year and started a new career as a tax preparer for H&R Block. She began traveling on cruise ships, sometimes with a relative or friend but often alone. She met new people.

Ms. Millar had a pulmonary embolism in 2004 and nearly died. Again she started anew: She moved to Evergreen Woods, where she became treasurer of the facility’s general store and volunteered at the local library, preparing tax returns at no cost.

In addition to Ms. Altavilla, Ms. Millar is survived by her sisters, Joan Thompson and Patricia Kerns; a son, David; three grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren.

From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Ms. Millar organized one- or two-week family vacations to Myrtle Beach, S.C. She would drive down with every necessity carefully packed: pancake mix, beach chairs, homemade spaghetti sauce. To her children and grandchildren, it was evidence of reliability.

“It was that repetition that we all loved so much, because we knew what to expect,” Ms. Altavilla said. “We knew Grandma. She was going to remember everything.”

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