Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Empty Journals

The mother of writer Terry Tempest Williams left Terry her journals but said that she could not read them until after she died. When it was time, Terry opened them and discovered the pages were blank. Why would her mother take such care to nicely bind her journals yet leave the pages empty? 

Thus began Williams’ search to reconstruct her mother from her memory and from the memories of family and her mother’s friends. As Terry pieced the events of her mother’s life together, and added in her own reflections, she created a unique daughter-mother dialogue that became the book When Women Were Birds.

This is what we face when a loved one dies — how to tell their whole story to others.

My parents were the last surviving members of their generation of the family, so when they died there was no one we could ask about their highlights and struggles. Before this, by the time we thought to ask about what they did in their lives before we were born, mom had developed dementia and dad, well, dad never like to talk about himself with much detail.

When my wife Evelyn died in her forties, we hadn’t taken the time to sit down and go over the events of our lives because we were still creating our careers. We didn’t feel like we had arrived at anything worthy of reflection. The time for summary, we thought, would come when we retired. Death threw that idea out the window. 

Evelyn’s life story also has a lot of blank pages, and like Terry, I am going around to our friends trying to fill in the gaps. Sorting through her possessions help remind me of some of her history, yet I can’t identify everything. I have no clue why she had turtle incense burners and a bird ocarina in a box in her closet. They predate me. Why did she keep them, and what stories do they hold?

Some stories don’t have possessions to remind me. Eight months after Ev’s death, I happened to remember, out of the blue, that she always baked sticky buns during the Christmas season. Why just at Christmas? Was it her mother’s recipe, and did she make them at Christmas so that she could take some to her? In addition to this, the image of the buns restores my physical memory of being with Ev in the kitchen as she baked, listening to her sing with joy and excitement, smelling the aroma of the rising buns, and our pleasure in breaking them apart and eating them, all warm and gooey.

A simple entry of five words in Evelyn’s nonexistent journey would also have brought the memory back. And if I hadn’t remembered, would it have been lost forever? 


How do any of us tell the story of someone we loved? We begin by writing down what we know.

Buy a journal. Enter the details you remember, as well as what your friends remember, on the left page. On the right page, write your commentary about those events, like a midrash on the main text. Add in context and how this event is connected to events in the past, or how it led to something yet to come. Include your unanswered questions.

We can refer to the journal over the years and remember their struggles and achievements, rather than just feeling the ache of missing them. We can use the words to rekindle their presence whenever their fire inside us has burned down to coals.

Even if our loved one had kept a journal, and even if we managed to reconstruct all the events of their life, the details would still not add up to them. We could not tease them or tell them how much we loved them. And they could not surprise us with something new. A journal is like a winter fog drifting across the meadow. Lovely to see and dwell in, but it’s not someone warm we can hug. 

What we write in our journals is not as important as what we write in the hearts of others.

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