In the face of a dear one's death, Deborah Siegel contemplates when the written word is, and isn't, enough.

Last week, I lost a dear family friend. David, 69, was a jovial, generous man, kind in spirit and magnanimous in heart. He was a beloved ob/gyn, though not my own, and he helped me tremendously during my recent fertility journey, taking all my questions and calls. I'd known David all my life. He'd gone to medical school with my father. The two men and their wives have been close friends and neighbors since long before I was conceived.

David died suddenly on a Saturday while his wife was out doing an errand. It was either an aneurysm or heart attack, we don't know. The suddenness and sadness of it haunts me. A too-early death will do that, as we greedy mortals never know what to make of the gaping hole where a loved one's vibrant life once stood. As usual, since I don't know how to process this absence, I find myself taking to the page.

It's a habit of mine. When loved ones die, I write. Blog posts and eulogies. (Here's one for Grandma Marge, another for Grandma Pearl.) I write in an effort, perhaps, to make myself feel, because my default response, after the initial shock and lament, is to freeze, go numb, shut down. If depression is the thinking person's response, at times, to life, perhaps numbness is the natural human response to death. How else are we supposed to make sense or meaning of "here today/gone tomorrow," knowing full well that it could have easily been (and will one day be) ourselves who disappear?

My intention with this post is not to tackle thorny issues of theology, metaphysics, epistemology, or ontology, but merely to offer a meditation on why we who are writers gravitate toward the written word to make sense of loss that feels...unreal.

It's been a week, really, of touching loss over here. On Monday, I lured a dear newer friend, one who has been recovering from the loss of a pregnancy, out for a walk with me. My friend hadn't been doing well (understandably) and I wanted to lend an ear. I worried, a bit, that my capacity to comfort may be impeded by the fact that I had to bring my twin babies along for the stroll. When I myself was preoccupied with having a child, friends with babies made me break out in hives of envy. So I couldn't help experiencing a tinge of the guilt of the living--in this case, the living being done by my own baby twins. David had a son my age and a daughter slightly older, and with them, too, I've found myself feeling a tinge of the there-but-for-the-grace-of-fill-in-the-blank-with-what-have-you go my own father and I. With both of these losses, I find myself grabbing hold, with renewed gusto, of the living, of the relationships that sustain my own life. I feel small for doing that, for it does little to help David's family, or my friend. On the other hand, what better way to acknowledge a life lost than to mourn them while vowing to fully, graciously, and consciously embody your own.

Words go far, but not far enough, I often fear, when using them to memorialize or even process a death. No matter where that death falls on the spectrum of life, the loss of potential, of a chance to be born or a chance to grow old and watch one's grandchildren come of age, is a silence so thick it leaves me choking on air.

And so dear She Writers, I ask you: How have you used words to comprehend or mark the loss that is death? Have such efforts been useful, futile, sustaining? I'd love to hear.

This post is dedicated to David Zbaraz (ז״ל alah b’shalom) his wife Deety, their children, and their grandchildren.

For a great book on writing and loss, see Louise DeSalvo's Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our....

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Comment by Victoria Noe on April 28, 2011 at 8:24am

My guest column, "Forming Community" appears in this weeks' Windy City Times' AIDS@30 series.


Comment by Dawn Nickel on September 1, 2010 at 8:49am
Victoria - thanks for your comment on my comment on Deborah's post (I am really new to SW and haven't quite figured out what I am doing or where my comments should go). Your book sounds amazing. Most of my writing to date has actually been about grief, mostly about daughters grieving mothers. My PhD studies were focused on the history of care of the dying, so a lot of my knowledge and personal experience base is around that end of life. I was fortunate enough to survive colon cancer (stage 3) but I too have lost loved ones to cancer. What a tribute to your friend, and how wonderful that she is your inspiration. Deborah - I am reading Louise Desalvo's book right now - thanks for the suggestion.
Comment by Victoria Noe on August 29, 2010 at 3:46pm
Dawn, thanks for your post. I'm new to She Writes and this is actually my first comment on the site. But it is definitely fortuitous, or maybe it's serendipity. The book I'm writing is on about grieving the death of a friend. It's not about one specific friendship - it's stories gleaned from interviews around the country, and also secondary sources. But it was inspired by one very special friendship.

My friend Delle was a writer, playwright, screenwriter, photographer, and the closest I'll ever get to knowing a saint. She fought ovarian cancer for 4 years before her poor tired body gave out. Before she died, we we having tea one morning and I told her I had an idea for a book. When I told her, she was very excited and enthusiastic. "Do it," she insisted. It was all the more remarkable because at that point we both knew she wasn't going to be around much longer.

After 3 years and 4 false starts, I am now deep into it. I feel her presence every single day, hear her voice often, egging me on.

My 16-year old daughter thinks my book is depressing, but it is the opposite. The men and women I've talked to have been so grateful to tell the stories of their friends and how important they were to them - and how their grief was dismissed by others. They couldn't get time off work for the funeral, or the famiy shut them out of the funeral rituals. They are eager to have their grief acknowledged and validated, and to let the world know about their friendship.

The men in particular have been a revelation to me. I expected to have to pry personal details from them. But without exception, they have bared their souls. It has been humbling, and a powerful testimony to the depth of feeling in their friendships.

Delle will live in this book, as its inspiration (a fact that I'm sure pleases her no end). But more importantly, it will give us all the sympathy we deserve when we grieve the loss of a friend.
Comment by Dawn Nickel on August 28, 2010 at 8:20pm
Thank you for your post about your friend, Deborah.

As an academic and professional researcher and writer, I have written a lot of words. As I now embark upon my "real" writer's life - I find the topic of loss a natural and helpful place to begin.Writing about death feels like a good writing exercise to me because I "feel" so deeply when I write about it. My mother's death was like a bold exclamation point in my life - and I may just write and write about it until I break through to the absolute emotional truth of that loss. I am not quite there, but I like where I am going.

Fortunately, I have a lot of other wonderful, life giving and life defining things to write about. Cancer for example. Had it. Beat it. (So far.) Learned a lot from having and beating it. (So far.) Oh, and then there are those couple of decades of addiction early on in my life (I am 50 now). I get that if writing really is about writing down the bones, capturing who I am, then I need to explore the life events that have at least partially defined me. But the past is just a piece of who I am, the textures of the details of my todays are what drive me to the pen, the pad. This site.

This is my first post on She Writes. I have been lurking for months. So here I am. Thanks for being here, and thanks for having me. I related to your post, Deborah. I guess that is what it is all about. Heal on.
Comment by Virginia Lloyd on August 25, 2010 at 6:22pm
Thank you Deborah for this heartfelt post. Responses to grief are as individual as people. Writers tend to write in response to loss, even though they may also react in lots of other ways - by sleeping too much/too little, by over-eating or forgetting to eat, by cutting their hair, moving house, or changing job. I renovated my house in response to the loss of my husband from cancer, moved from Sydney to New York in 2006, and starting writing about my experiences. My book, The Young Widow's Book of Home Improvement, was published in my native Australia in 2008 and - to my enduring surprise - chosen as "One of the 50 Books You Can't Put Down" for a national reading campaign in its 2009 paper edition.
Comment by Kathy Jordan on August 23, 2010 at 9:00am
So sorry about the loss of David. No matter when or how death of a loved one happens, I invariably find it unacceptable. (Not so good at recovering from grief, either) But writing does help. Several months ago I blogged about the loss of a long-time friend. We'd been out of touch for a number of years, and putting words to my guilt about that made it a little easier to bear. Love and prayers to you and to David's family.
Comment by Julie Jeffs on August 23, 2010 at 7:10am
Oh Deborah, my sincerest condolences. I remember when my mom passed away I wrote something for her memorial service. I still have it and used some of it as the basis for one of the stories in my memoir. Before that I used it to write a short story for a creative writing class ... even several years after her death I could not read my own words out loud they brought such strong emotions, but in the end they were healing as well. I wish you the best my friend.
Comment by Sarah Neustadter on August 22, 2010 at 7:37pm
Such a beautiful poem Judith~ thank you for sharing it!
Comment by Judith van Praag on August 22, 2010 at 10:35am
Deborah, I love the image of the empty bench and found myself looking for the marker on the ground. In Seattle, with its many parks, you can always find a bench commemorating a lost loved one, such a wonderful way to remember someone, to sit where they might have sat, contemplating life.
Comment by Jaime Herndon on August 22, 2010 at 10:14am
Deborah, my condolences about David (baruch Hashem). I, too, turn to words, as I imagine most, if not all, of us here, in times of sadness or grief or despair. They don't have to be pretty, or grammatically correct, or even make sense - because what grief makes sense, especially in the beginning? I find that when looking for words to comfort others, like your friend who lost a pregnancy, sometimes words are not even necessary. But I struggle with words when I try to make sense of devastating trauma, or how it feels watching a loved one of mine slowly die of ovarian cancer - like nothing is "good enough" for the situation. But maybe it doesn't have to be?


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