Predictable disappointments

I just filed an obituary with the Globe & Mail and I’m already aware of something hovering nearby. It’s disappointment. Not mine, but the disappointment of one of my readers. The widow of the subject whose life I just described. Like many other family members of the subjects I write about, she requested to read the piece before I submitted it and I said no. It’s a policy at the paper, I said. And it’s absolutely not allowable by me. Here’s why: it has to do with what I don’t include and how some of these omissions don’t sit right with the beloved members of the deceased person’s family.

I do my best though and I have to follow a rough formula in order to fulfill my journalistic obligation. Plus I have only about 1500 words to spill the contents of a completed life. This is not simple matter. Omissions—several million, in fact, if one were truly to count them–are necessary. Still, I always dread this moment before the curtain falls; before the article appears and the disappointment develops.

This woman, the spouse, is deeply grieving, of course she is, and my heart is with her. I told her that I’d do my very best to tell his life well. And I did. But she wants a “less traditional” obituary, one that speaks personally not professionally; his private not public persona. Well, I can’t completely deliver I’m afraid. It’s a low side to this endeavour: I can never completely deliver. I will disappoint.

Theirs was a love story, she said, and I believe her. She sent me freshly scanned copies of love letters he had written to her. I scanned them myself, with my eyes, not wishing to tread on their privacy. It is none of my business and it’s wrong for her to share these private, intimate, moments.

She sent me several photographs of the two of them, hoping they’ll illustrate the story that I’ve written. They will not. Again: I blame it less on myself and more on the formula. In some ways, it’s a dirty business and like I said, I dread the disappointment. I tell it like it is, but only very partially.

And what “is” anyway? Dry things like CVs, log books, diplomas. And I am allowed a couple colourful anecdotes–sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can get away with one or two more tiny ones, or a splash of detail like a the fashions in a home or the roll of shoulders when a person laughs. Sometimes, but rarely, I can include a story about how-they-met, the lovers I mean. I almost always try.

Not sure when this piece will be in the paper. I filed it an hour ago so it might show up tomorrow, maybe later in the week. Some folks will thank me for it and others will criticize it for the absences and I can only say: Sorry. As much as I feel for you, and I do, this is still just a job. I work very hard, earn very little, love what I do, and sometimes kind of hate it.

Hate the disappointments.

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About Nor

I'm a creative non-fiction writer, with a special interest in memoirs and obituaries--life stories, local histories with flesh & blood anecdotal details. I'm also beginning to create podcasts of people's stories and expanding their audiences. I'm a diarist, an editor, and a political activist. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and spend days tapping keys or staining my fingers in ink.
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4 Responses to Predictable disappointments

  1. Stephanie says:

    You describe well how you have to tread between form and content. But an obituary is not the place for that level of personal information. Maybe she can write a piece in the Lives Lived column — that would be a more appropriate spot for some of those memories. (Or you could offer to write it for her?)

    • In the obituary you took the time to show a lay reader why this person’s work was exceptional. This was an excellent use of precious space. In your role as a journalist, professional detachment is essential and I think you maintained it in a compassionate way. The post was a meaningful reflection on your dilemma as a writer of obituaries, undertaking your task at a time when feelings are running high within a family. I think it’s important that you show you don’t take their feelings lightly.

  2. Sheila Stewart says:

    I love this behind the scenes, behind the story look at how you do your work. I like how you describe the complexity and show it as work, which you love and sometimes hate.

  3. Cason Schatz says:

    I really like and appreciate your article post.Thanks Again.

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