In Iceland, obituaries often take the form of letters to the deceased, written by friends and family members. Morgunblaðið, a prominent national newspaper, regularly features multiple obituaries addressed to a single person. Archaeologists have found letters to the dead written on bowls used by ancient Egyptians in funerary rites, dating back to the 3rd century AD. They remain some of the most personal writings found from that period, and typically include direct supplications to the dead to intervene in present affairs.
“The act of writing is an act of attempted comprehension, and, in a childlike way, control; we are so baffled and exhausted by what has happened, we want to imagine that giving words to the unspeakable will make it somehow our own.” So explained author Joyce Carol Oates, in a series of email exchanges with former Slate Editor Meghan O’Rourke, author of The Long Goodbye. Published in the New York Times in February 2011, the conversation ran under the headline, “Why We Write About Grief.”
In it, the two authors talk about sleepless nights and writing at 2am, and about the way grief memoirs have become their own literary genre —attaining a level of popularity that defies our typical taboos around loss and life after.
Often, one of the best things we can do for ourselves and each other is to make space to remember those who now live only in memory, by writing a letter, or sitting down with a journal or a tape recorder and capturing stories tucked deep inside the recesses of our memory.
Here are a couple of prompts:
- Write a letter to your parent, catching them up on where you are today.
- What lessons are you grateful for?
- What are you proudest of in your life?
- What are you most hopeful about?
What have you been wanting to get out of your head and onto the paper?
My dad loved the ocean. He was born and raised in San Diego and grew up sailing with his father, was an avid and extremely talented surfer, and later in life involved in competitive Hawaiian outrigger canoeing.
So naturally when I see a large body of water I think of my dad. We spread his ashes in various areas of the Pacific, yet since all oceans connect, it’s not a stretch for me to imagine that he’s out there when I’m looking at any ocean. Sometimes I’ll just go sit in front of the Hudson river (not the same, I know) and talk to him or just reflect on his memory.
One ritual I hope to keep annually is sending out a message in a bottle to him on his birthday. Last March 18, I bought a six-pack of his favorite beer Negra Modelo, drank one, wrote my dad a letter, and sealed up the bottle with an old wine cork. I then went down to the Hudson River, emotionally wished my dad a happy 64th birthday and tossed my thoughts into the black turbulent waters. It was freezing, wet, and snowing; I couldn’t help but envision my dad chuckling at my misery in the cold, as he never did understand why I liked New York.
With any luck, the bottle’s made its way out of the tri-state area and moved on down to warmer waters. I like to envision the bottle washed up on a Caribbean shore in the sun, exactly where my dad would want to be enjoying a nice cold Modelo.
RECIPE: Chocolate Chip Cookies