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As the years pile up, writing about loss is both a burden and a blessing

The older I get, the more often I am called upon to write something about someone who has died.

It’s a mixed blessing, that call. I’ve often said that putting a period on somebody’s life is a unique type of honor, particularly if you have known and cared about that somebody over a meaningful period of time.

It’s also difficult. Because as the years pile up, so do the losses. And so do the times when that obligation puts you — “you” as in “me” in this case — in front of a computer screen trying to encapsulate a life and a loss into a few hundred words.

Or even a thousand or two, if you happen to have a blog and some understanding editors.

This is rewarding duty. It’s also exacting. And sometimes it leaves me feeling inadequate, as if there is no right way to reach the essential truth of a human life.

The poet Stanley Kunitz touches on that inner search in his often-quoted poem “The Layers” when he writes: “How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?”

The assassination of John Kennedy was my first clear experience with trying to reconcile the death of someone who had touched my life, in Kennedy’s case from far away but profoundly nonetheless.

I was too young in late November of 1963 to write about it, or even to experience the urge to write about it. But it was the first time I can recall truly feeling the weight of a loss. And I began the process of reconciling it without really understanding what I was doing.

The first time I lost a friend came a few years later. I was 15 when my dad gently broke the news after Sunday morning mass that Jerry — who was more often called Ole — had been killed in a car wreck. About a year after that, my dad died from cancer.

And that’s when I faced the stark realization that death can come to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

That realization comes to all of us at different times. And our individual feast of losses grows with the years. Kunitz wrote “The Layers” when he was in his 70s. He was trying to reconcile the deaths of friends Theodore Roethke, Mark Rothko and Robert Lowell.

Following poet’s advice to “live in the layers, not the litter”

But the poem isn’t just about loss. It’s also about how our lives change and how we change over the years, in part through loss. And in the end, Kunitz resolves to “live in the layers, not the litter,” words that had come to him in a dream and inspired the poem.

He concludes it with “I am not finished with my changes.”

Kunitz lived to be 100, so there was still time for many changes, and more reconciling of losses.

Most of us won’t reach 100. But by the time we reach our ‘70s, we have “walked through many lives,” as Kunitz says in the poem, and experienced the joys of many relationships and the sadness of many losses.

Sometimes during daily mass when we pray for those who have died, I feel overwhelmed by the rush of faces that fill my memory. So many family members, friends, colleagues, friendly acquaintances, the well known and the barely acknowledged at all.

Some I have written about. Most not. That, too, can be difficult, deciding when to write about a loss, and how much to write.

When I was working full time as a journalist, the decision was often made by an editor. So that was easy. These days, without tight deadlines and story assignments, the decision rests with me and some subliminal force that is hard to define.

But at its core it’s about about reconciling a loss on a public platform.

Sometimes that reconciliation happens in a sort of magical way, and words naturally follow. Sometimes it’s a lot more difficult.

My dad died in 1968, when I was 16. And it took me 50 years and a number of failed attempts to come close to expressing all that his death meant to me. What it did to me. The way it changed me. And, yes, what it gave me. Because painful loss gives as well as takes, if we are willing to accept it.

The extended essay I wrote for this blog back in the summer of 2018 — the 50th anniversary of my dad’s death — didn’t completely satisfy my long-frustrated need to tell that defining story, but it helped.

My mom died in 2004. I was 52 then instead of 16. And the loss of my mother didn’t splinter my world as my dad’s passing did so many years earlier. Even so, I haven’t found the right words to fully express what I felt about her passing.

Not yet, at least.

Red Smith’s advice is “try again, and then again”

Sometimes you can feel inspired to start an essay about the passing of someone but lack the inspiration to finish it. Because a lot of the time, writing is difficult.

Red Smith, the man generally regarded to have been the best sports writer of all time, is reputed to have said: “Writing is easy. You just sit at the typewriter until beads of blood form on your forehead.”

Hemingway is also reputed to have said something like that, along with a couple of other writers.

I’m not sure if anybody actually said it, other than those who said somebody said it. But somebody should have said it, or written it, if they didn’t.

Red Smith did sometimes refer to his home office, where he did a lot of his writing, as “The Torture Chamber.” So it seems like he could have made the “beads of blood” comment.

Writing that is easy to read usually isn’t easy to write. It’s work. Hard work.

A New York Times obituary story after Red Smith’s death in January of 1982, told a story about a college journalist who sought advice on writing from Smith. Smith responded with a story about a soft-spoken editor (yes, they exist, along with the other kind) who would stroll up quietly behind a reporter working on a story, read what was on the page and, if the story had a problem, gently say “try again” as he turned to walk away.

“My best advice is, try again. And then again,” Smith wrote to the student. “If you’re for this racket, and not many really are, then you’ve got an eternity of sweat and tears ahead. I don’t mean just you; I mean anybody.”

After that, Smith offered the college journalist specific tips on writing.

I wouldn’t call the den in our house, where I sit tapping away on the computer keyboard right now, a torture chamber. It’s comfortable and well lighted. But the writing isn’t always easy here. Writing hasn’t always been easy anywhere I’ve ever worked.

Sometimes on deadline when I’ve had to force words into stories or columns, it has been difficult, even painful. But at other times, the process was smooth, even when the subject matter was rough.

Words poured out after Mickelson crash

At such times the words poured out, as they did on the evening of April 19, 1993, while I sat at my computer in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader newsroom and wrote about the death of Gov. George Mickelson.

If you’re anywhere near my age and paid any attention to South Dakota news, you probably know the story, generally at least.

Mickelson died when a state-owned Mitsubishi MU-2 turboprop airplane crashed in Iowa as the governor and seven other South Dakotans returned from a business trip to Ohio. And it should never be forgotten that each of the other deaths — Angus Anson, Ron Becker, David Birkeland, Roland Dolly, Roger Hainje, David Hansen and Ron Reed — was a tragedy of its own.

But Mickelson dominated the story, of course. And members of a team of Argus reporters all had our assignments. On that first day, I was turned loose by the editors to write reflections on the man and his life. Without notes or phone calls to anyone, I wrote a hundred column inches or so, which was quite a bit, especially considering that newspapers were full sized back then, wider than the slimmed down versions that would follow.

It wasn’t Red Smith journalism. But it came together pretty well.

Along with other reporters, I wrote more and more about Mickelson and the crash in the coming days. I interviewed people along the route the governor usually took from his family cabin on Lake Poinsett to Pierre. I joined my brother, Terry, and other staffers in covering the memorial service in the state Capitol and then the procession of cars from the Capitol on Highway 14 to Brookings, where Mickelson was buried.

It was a difficult week. Avoiding tears was a challenge, but the writing was not. It was cathartic. And it kept me focused on the story and not the emotions of the loss. At least it did for most of the week. When I got back to my house in Sioux Falls late on a Friday evening, I settled into my living room chair and bawled.

Over the years, when the April 19th anniversary of that awful day came around, I wrote reflections on the loss. Time and again, I wrote the same story in different ways, or tried to find different ways. This year was the 30th anniversary. A big year. And I had nothing to say. Nothing to write. I just didn’t feel up to it. Not this time.

It was as if I didn’t want to return to the emotions of that time. I’d been there too many times. And now, as a contract journalist for South Dakota Public Broadcasting working at my own pace on my own schedule, I don’t have to go when I don’t want to go.

Maybe next year. Or the year after. Or maybe I’ll be around to write a 40th- or even a 50th- anniversary reflection. Who knows?

It’s not Whitman, but I hope it will do

But not this time, not in a week that had already been marked by a loss, a loss that touched many South Dakotans.

Two days before the 30th anniversary of the Mickelson crash, former U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler, chairman of the state Democratic Party, died after suffering a heart attack while jogging. The next day, my daughter, Meghan, texted me to say that her former boss at the U.S. Attorney’s Office was gone. Immediately I thought I should write something. But after a couple hours of off-and-on consideration, I couldn’t. Or at least I didn’t.

The hours stretched into a couple of days, then a week, without a word on my computer screen about Randy Seiler.

The question facing anyone trying to write something meaningful about the end of a human life is the one asked so eloquently by Walt Whitman in “When Lilacs Last on the Dooryard Bloom’d,” his extended elegy to Abraham Lincoln:

“And how shall I deck my song for the large, sweet soul that is gone,” Whitman wrote.

Seiler wasn’t Lincoln. And I’m sure no Whitman. Still, I hoped some words would come, to allow me to deck my own song for Seiler. So I left the story alone and eventually, a week after Meghan sent that text, the words did come.

What I wrote couldn’t approach Whitman in elegance and impact, of course. But I hope it honored Seiler in some measure of what he deserved.

And I hope I managed, in a small way once again, to “reconcile the heart to its feast of losses.” Which is both a chore and an honor to any writer fortunate enough to be left among the living.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.