On Writing Loss
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 Lives.

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  • Victoria Noe

    My guest column, "Forming Community" appears in this weeks' Windy City Times' [email protected] series.



  • Dawn Nickel

    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.

  • Victoria Noe

    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.

  • Dawn Nickel

    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.

  • Virginia Lloyd

    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.

  • Kathy Jordan

    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.

  • Julie Jeffs

    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.

  • Sarah Neustadter

    Such a beautiful poem Judith~ thank you for sharing it!

  • Judith van Praag

    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.

  • Jaime Herndon

    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?

  • Judith van Praag

    Dear Deborah,
    My condolences with the loss of your friend David at age 69.
    Can't help but think of my own father's death in '69 when we, my mother (52 at the time) and I, considered him gone too soon, when I was only 13 and he two days short of 71. I was the child that had to make up for all those killed during the Holocaust and my father asked me not to forget his story, history.
    I promised I would not, considering his wish a demand to write his story. Still I felt more comfortable making visible the stories of others (as a designer for multicultural theater).
    A visit with a women who practiced "automatic handwriting" helped me with my first attempts to grasp the extend of the influence of early loss of my male parent on my life. I started writing poetry, because I couldn't allow myself to summon more words that described my grief. I did not think I could manage full sentences.
    It wasn't until the loss of my husband and my baby daughter Ariane Eira in 1993, that I really started writing about my own loss and later in response to other people's losses. My husband started calling me the Ann Landers of Grief.
    In answer to your questions, I don't know how I could have survived without writing down my feelings, or rather the translation in words of sensations. Writing about a baby's death the first as last question that remains unanswered even is the clinical reason is clear, is Why?
    My father was an artist the last twenty years of his life, one of is sculptures shows a man addressing G.d in despair, asking Why? Why hast thou forsaken me?
    Writing about loss gives us besides a place to unload, to try and make sense, or to try and accept, a gauge to measure our development in the mourning process. Acknowledging our own or an other person's loss is never futile, it's all about remembering, paying respect, offer condolences. Remembering a person on the page is of great importance to those who are left behind.
    When someone I've known, someone dear to my heart has died, I write down her name, cluster in Gabriele Rico's fashion around the name, bringing to the surface memories, deeper and further from the present time, I cluster about moments between back when and right now until a mental shift gives me the sentence that makes up the essence of what was or is most important about my relationship with the deceased.
    I write letters to those who remain, and when appropriate I send the poem Claribel Alegria wrote after her husband had died.
    I wish you and yours Good Grief Deborah, your post shows you are doing what you can. I do believe writing is a Creative Act of Healing.

    Salí a buscarte

    Salí a buscarte
    atravesé valles
    y montañas
    surqué mares lejanos
    le pregunté a las nubes
    y al viento
    inútil todo
    dentro de mí estabas.

    Searching for You

    I went out searching for you
    crossing valleys
    and mountains
    ploughing distant seas
    asking of the clouds
    and the wind your whereabouts
    it was all useless
    you were within me.

    Claribel Alegría

    from Sorrow
    Curbstone Press 1999

  • Kevin Camp


    I understanding things from a technical perspective, but I deliberately write to discard certain conventions. I find AP style constrictive, and while I am willfully perverse about work ethic regarding what I write, I eschew the technical aspect altogether. I place much more of an emphasis on original voices.

    Some people may need guidelines, and everyone needs a good editor from time to time.

  • Perhaps it is the nature of the muse but words are a vehicle to cope. For me, poetry is the way that I process things in this wonderful life. Often, I have written a poem in memory of someone and I have been told by others that it helped to hear a few words, a few lines of poetry about their loved one.
    Take care,
    PM_Poet Writer

  • Dawn Potter

    This is a mere technical question; but when I read the title of this post, I thought "On Writing Loss" would be dealing with something analogous to "On Hair Loss." I was embarrassed to discover that your intent was more serious: that the post was "On Writing [about] Loss." As a copyeditor, I do know that there is a trend toward dropping prepositions, but I'm wondering if other people find this pattern disconcerting or if there is a rationale that I'm overlooking.

  • Brooke Linville

    Deborah- I am so sorry for your loss.

    A teacher/writer I babysat for right after her baby was born when I was in college committed suicide a few years ago, taking her toddler son's life as well. While I did not know them very well, I struggled mightily to understand how she could do such a thing. I turned it into a college assignment and wrote about her death and her son's in a way that allowed me to at least get some closure.

    But I also lost my grandmother earlier this year and didn't have that same pull. I wonder if there is something about young losses or senseless deaths that compels us to write more than more natural, expected ones.

  • Eleanor D. Van Natta

    I wrote a poem for my sister's funeral, and then my brother had to read it because I could not voice the words through my sobs. Then later I was so disturbed by the wild horse round-ups and wrote about why that was affecting me so...http://blog.sagebynature.com/wild-horses-cavalry-of-woe/. I think putting the words in print, or digital, helps us to see where they are coming from while all the while soothing us...

  • Maureen E. Doallas

    My brother died at age 59 a year ago this past May. I started writing poetry again the day after he called to tell me he had cancer and that he might have six weeks to live. By some grace he lived another year. The poem read at his funeral was one I wrote not knowing at the time it would be for his funeral. Over time, pain from loss moves from one part of the heart to a deeper place in the heart where it's held in memory and recast again as love. Writing is an act of memory, too. It is what loves comes to.

  • Malissa Moss

    Deborah - a great tribute to your friend and a reminder that words can and do help a grieving soul express what can't possibly be expressed. I know this to be true as I write a blog on grieving the loss of a child. After four years it has taken a life of it's own and is becoming a book. One that I hope inspires others to write their grief on the wall like a testimony to one's life lived and the lives left behind in the wake of grief.



  • Sarah Neustadter

    This is a topic and a question that you have posed that is very near and dear to my heart and I appreciate you having the courage to start the conversation. In the wake of great and sudden loss and grief, I do not think I would be alive or at least as seminally whole as I am now without having written myself through it. I have found through my own loss of my beloved boyfriend and best friend to suicide, that in the wake of death, suddenly the veils are lifted and reality looks and feels completely different, altered. I found myself quite literally in between worlds, lost, disoriented, and dislocated. A crack appeared, opening me up into a vortex of all the world's collective pain and suffering. And the only way I could find myself and find my way back out of this hole was to write myself back into the world of the living. The act of writing (as we as writers all know) takes the abstract and the undefinable and makes it concrete, defineable, tangible, and somehow more real. In the year and a half of my intense grieving process, I wrote my ass off. My life depended on it. I kept three journals. One for my regular nightly journaling routine, one to record my dreams, and one to record and magical signs or synchronicities I perceived to be occurring from my deceased loved one. I also starting writing a book called Love You Like the Sky about suicide, love, death, loss, and grief. I plowed through on my dissertation, I wrote an article on 'spiritual motivations for suicide attempts' and I started a blog that delves into the issues of mortality, grief, loss, healing, and suicide.In the last year alone, I must have written thousands of pages. In short, writing was my lifeline.

    To Deborah and all the other She Writers who are grieving- I offer you my condolences. I am so sorry for your losses and for the irrepressable ache of missing the one you love. I wish you much healing, support, and strength.

    I invite you to my site - as there are various posts that explore my expereinces, thoughts, and feelings about greif, death, and my healing process.


  • Cindy Eastman Writing

    I guess, as writers, it's what we do. We write to process our experience and to make sense of the senseless. Does it always work? Even as we rail at the fates, we must get some relief because time and time again, we pick up pen and paper...and write our pain, our sadness, our loss. I add one of my own attempts here...but thank you, Deborah, for yours. My condolences...
    Missing Elizabeth

  • Hollye Dexter

    I, too, turn to the page in times of overwhelming grief, when the spoken word is futile. I recently lost a good friend (in July) and found myself feeling impotent to better the situation in any way. He left behind a wife and six year old son. What could I possibly say?
    I found that in blogging about it, as impersonal as it may seem, it allowed me to connect with other hearts, to share my stories about Greg, thereby keeping a part of him alive. I wrote several posts, about his life, about dealing with the grief, and about the memorial service.
    Judging by the comments on my blog, people seemed to relate and want to connect. Everyone has felt this way at some time in their life, it helps so much to know we're not alone.
    That, to me, felt like something I could actually do to participate in the healing process. As storytellers we have the power to bring someone back to life through our words. What an incredible gift.

    So sorry for your loss Deborah.

    Here is one of my blog posts about grief: