My mother died last month. Her death was long anticipated and when it finally came, something of a relief. But losing a parent is one of life’s great transitions, moving the next generation closer to the front line of death. As expected as my mom’s death was, it also caused my universe to wobble. In order to hold on and begin working my way through a grief I expect to accompany me the rest of my life, I started doing what I always do to help me understand myself and my place in the universe: I wrote.
I’m not just talking about my journal, which I’ve been keeping since I was nine and which has been a companion for this long, arduous journey of my mother’s decline. I’m talking about the writing that accompanies a death, and that has allowed me a formal, disciplined way to organize my experience.
First, I wrote my mother’s obituary. I drafted it the first week of Mom’s final decline, when hospice took over. Two weeks later, I looked up the few facts about which I’d been unsure, and the day after she passed, when my oldest brother asked if I would write the obit, I was able to zap it to him via email.
I was enormously pleased that my oldest brother acknowledged me as a writer, relied on my services at my family’s time of need. After reading what I’d written, this brother wrote back saying, “This is great!” Now that Mom is gone, relationships with my siblings have become even more important, and this accolade from my oldest brother affirmed my sense of belonging to this band of brothers who tortured me through childhood, but whom I now hold dear.
The second writing task was the memorial service, which I organized. I solicited stories of remembrance, organized them so they had a narrative arc, and wrote a prologue and epilogue, giving the entire service a shape. My youngest brother, a playwright and filmmaker, gave me some directorial advice that added an element of bittersweet humor to the event. Laughter is good medicine, even – especially – in the face of death.
Next, I thought about my mother’s journey from octogenarian skier just seven years ago, to a human husk ravaged by dementia, leaving her without language, memory or mobility. It’s a grim fate, though not uncommon. Five million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease, which is only one of several kinds of dementia. Dementia is predicted to reach epidemic proportions worldwide by 2050 – by which time I’ll probably have it, if I’m still alive. So I wrote my monthly column for the local paper about how my family coped with my mother’s final year of care, figuring my story probably isn’t that unique. Ironically, now that medicine can keep our bodies going so long, we have to decide how we want to live, which means we also have to consider how we want to die.
Now, I’m writing about how we write about death right here. And I doubt that I’m done yet. But for now – and for this blog – it seems important to restate the obvious: We writers have an obligation to articulate the truth as we see it, to say the hard things, to tell the stories that are sometimes painful, to point out the conundrums our culture has created, to confront our readers with our thoughts, so they can push against them and discover their own.
It’s a great responsibility, being a writer in this world. And for those of us for whom writing is as essential as breathing air, writing is also a great comfort, especially in the face of death.