Death and Writing

Posted on March 1, 2011. Filed under: Commentaries, writing | Tags: , , , , |

My father is dying.

So, what does that have to do with writing, you might be wondering.  Well, everything.  Everything in my life has to do with writing.   I mean, something small, like a moment in a coffee shop, could yield an entire story.  But something big, like my dad having cancer, can affect how much I write, if I write, and what I write about – perhaps for a very long time.

Lately, taking care of and visiting with my dad has been a big part of my life.  I need to be here with him.  I need to take care of him and to have this time.  Does that mean that physically I am left with very little time to write?  Yes.  Does that mean that emotionally and mentally I am drained?  Yes.  Does being mentally drained affect whether or not I feel like writing?  Yes.

Not that I am making excuses, but it is hard to care about doing work I get paid to do right now, let alone care about the work of building a career that may or may not ever come to fruition.  I want to spend some of this time working on my novel and working on stories and being creative, but I rarely do anything that doesn’t absolutely have to be done these days.

Additionally, what I write about is and will be different due to my experiences.  My mom died of cancer in 2003.  Since then, I have written some stories about being a cancer victim, and some stories about being a family member of someone with cancer.  I have experienced the long term illness and death of a loved one.  I was left with detailed memories of that, but also a somewhat darker view of the world because of it.

I was 29 when my mom died.  Most of my friends had never experienced family illness or loss.  Most of them had no idea how to be a friend to me during the period of time when she was ill or immediately following that period – while I was grieving.  I wrote the “Manual for Caring,” which aired on WAMU, partly because I was disappointed in how many of my friends reacted and partly because I was hopeful that some people would hear it and understand what was expected of them as friends or family members of people in such a situation.

David Furst, the producer at WAMU I worked with, said I had more faith in people than he did.  I am not sure if that’s true.  I just think that people don’t always know what they should do.  Many people are selfish or self centered and just, when it comes down to it, don’t care enough to help their friends when they really need it.  But some people simply need more information.  I wrote the commentary shortly after starting to deal with my dad’s prognosis.  I wrote it hoping it would help.

But of course, the biggest factor of death that affects writing is depression.  Watching someone you love suffer is horrible.  Watching and doing nothing – because what can you do – while someone you have loved your whole life melts away and dies.  It saps your strength.  It saps your will to get up in the morning, to enjoy anything, to want to do anything.  And so, I don’t.  I don’t write, just like I don’t go out.  I just mourn.  It’s the only task I have energy for these days.

I have posted the written version of the commentary below, for anyone who prefers reading to listening.  It really is hard to know the right thing to say or do when someone you care about is going through a tragic period in his or her life.  These are just my thoughts as someone who has been on the receiving end of some pretty inappropriate responses, as well as some really helpful ones.

Manual for Caring

By Jessica Piscitelli

When my mom died, I was devastated.  My grief took over.  It dictated what I did and how I acted.   My friends didn’t have it so easy.  They didn’t know how to act or what to say.   In this world of guides for “how to sell just about anything,”  “how to succeed in five easy steps,” or “how to lose weight in just twenty minutes a day,” I figure there should be a manual for caring.  So, here’s my version: “Jessica’s guide to caring for those in grief.”

Step one:  have patience.
When someone you love dies, it gets worse, for a long time, before it gets better.  The act of Death is over and is final, but the realization that someone has died takes a long time to sink in – and the more time that passes, the more it hurts, since it’s been that much longer since you heard their voice, smelled them, touched them.

It takes a lot of time.  Years even.  Have patience and realize that grieving is a long process.

Step two: reserve the horror stories for the campfire.
When a person is grieving, believe it or not, they don’t want to hear stories of other people who have died horrific deaths.  Sharing a personal experience is one thing.  Telling a juicy story about someone you heard about who died gruesomely is quite another.  The person in grief has seen it, first hand, and doesn’t want to be reminded.

Step three:  be sensitive to the loss.
For someone who is grieving, the pain of absence is felt at all times.   Remember that when discussing your mother’s annoying habit of spoiling your child or talking about your husband’s bad anniversary present.  The loss of a father or daughter or friend means the loss of someone we get to talk, or even complain about, in the present or for the future.
If your friend grows quiet, or leaves the room when you mention mother’s or father’s day or birthdays, forgive them.  It’s hard to not be able to say, ‘yeah, I know what you mean’ – because we don’t anymore.

Step four:  listen like your life depended on it.                                                                                                                                                                                                A grieving person sometimes needs to talk, and it is hard when the people who should care the most want to pretend it’s not happening. You want to help?  Call up your friend.   When she picks up, ask questions, and listen to what she needs to say.  Sometimes all one needs is someone to listen to some awful moment or formerly happy memory that keeps coming back every time she closes her eyes.

Listening will lead you to the next and final step: offering help.                                                                                                                                                         While it is always nice to make a general offering, something specific is better.  Asking questions will get you to the specifics.  Are you paying your bills?  Have you been eating?  Getting out?  Going into the office to pick up work?
Offer to do the shopping, cooking, cleaning or errand running.  Chances are, the really big things will have been handled.  Chances are, he or she only needs a little nudge to get back on track.  So, don’t be afraid to ask, “What can I do to help?”

You will feel better, having asked, having offered.  And your friend, the one in grief, will feel better knowing that someone – that you – love her and care.

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Death And Writing…

[…]My father is dying. So, what does that have to do with writing, you might be wondering. Wel, everything.[…]…


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