Using the Pen to Return from Grief

Since my dad’s passing in April of 2012, I’ve learned there are many, varied, and sometimes unusual, ways people find to support their grief and integrate the inescapable reality of loss. No single process is best for everyone. For my own acceptance and eventual comfort, I turned to the pen.

His death was not unexpected. Stage IV cancer was diagnosed more than three years before Daddy died. Nor was the moment of his passing a sudden or traumatic occurrence. He died peacefully holding my hand. Nonetheless, I was traumatized, as I believe all who lose loved ones are, by his physical and abrupt absence from my life. I missed everything about my father’s support, his loving influence and the relationship we shared in our daily comings, goings and doings. His laughter, his unshared memories, his thoughts and his silliness: all were lost with his passing.

Where was I to find my equilibrium without my father’s daily input into my life? I knew I would grieve and miss him, but I never anticipated just how much that would hurt. And then, it was my living reality: he was gone.

I felt so much support from others: my husband, children, siblings, extended family, friends and others whose lives my father had touched. But I needed more than that. I needed to find my own internal compass, to channel my grief into some effort that could bring Light to my own dark corners and perhaps also to the lives of others.

When I felt overcome with the reality of my dad’s loss, I grabbed onto a lifeline that he left for me through his words and his own example: writing. Finding new strength and peace in that activity, I held on and wrote as though treading water in a whirlpool. Gradually I found myself lifting, spiritually, purposefully, and connecting with hope.

Later, as I shared what I wrote, I also found a community of grievers and healers, new friends who connect and support each other with their words, their acts of hope and kindness, their generous presence and acceptance of What Is. I thank you for being a part of that community, for me.

The following excerpt is the first chapter of the story of being-with my dying dad and being-with the grief that followed our parting. The chapter is very short, because that was all I could write on the first day of my journey to a new equilibrium and eventually to a published book. As you read, consider that it might be of help to you to write your own story.

I miss you, Daddy.

Daddy, I promised you I would continue the story, your story and our story, after you could no longer write. Today is the day I start.

In those moments between your last breath and my realization that it was, I felt many things—pain, sorrow, relief, surprise, wonder—all imbued with so much gratitude and peace that your struggle to live and to die at the same time was over.

It’s been three weeks, and I handled them pretty well for the most part, until yesterday. That’s when I melted down. That’s when it truly hit me that I will never know another love like yours, another bond like ours, another unconditional space where I grow and flourish without demands or expectations, with boundless acceptance, unceasing encouragement and a shared history that goes all the way back to my first breaths. 

You are my Daddy, and there will never be another like you. I miss you.



Julie Nierenberg

More Articles Written by Julie

A writer, editor and author coach, I am inspired by the journey of love and release through my father’s end of life. In 2013 I published a book about our experience. Guided by my father's living example as an author and activist, I write to contribute to how we prepare, individually and collectively, to live and support the final chapter of life. I write to immerse in the moment and to experience the satisfaction that writing can bring. Oklahoma is the home of my roots. I lived in McCloud, Tahlequah, Oklahoma City and Tulsa for many years before a recent move to Toronto, Ontario. As a young adult, I meandered through a variety of career emphases in environmental and biomedical sciences before realizing I was called to be an educator. Following my heart into education of gifted children, I enjoyed nearly twenty years, first as a Whole Language, Spanish and art teacher and then as an administrator. With a growing love of children, I courageously became a parent, twice! The joy and purpose I feel in that role is a guiding light in my daily life. Now my two daughters are firmly on the paths of their own journeys through life; I thrill to watch them as they navigate their chosen courses. In 2006, I grew wings that took me all the way to Toronto, where I joined my life partner and soul mate. There, I reinvented my career to flexibly accommodate travel between the home of my family of origin in Oklahoma and my new home in Canada. I established my own business as a writer, editor, author coach and self-publisher. It has been my great pleasure to work with other writers as a partner in authorship, or as editor and coach, and I look forward to many more such affiliations. With each passing day, more topics and opportunities present themselves and I embrace them with gratitude. During the months, weeks and days leading up to my father's death, I was present as much as possible. I was with him when he transitioned from this earthly life in April of 2012, so very privileged to be at his side. Later, as my sorrow washed over me in waves, I began to write our very personal story, and I connected with his memory, integrating my grief, through that effort. In 2013, I published the story as a short book and included resources to support others facing end-of-life issues. Since the book's publication as "Daddy, this is it. Being-with My Dying Dad," I have reached out to many grief and bereavement support workers, hospice and palliative care chaplains and end-of-life advocates with an introduction to my book. I make many valued connections as I reach out with this purpose. With one such connection, Victoria Brewster, MSW, I am now co-writing another book on Death, Dying and the End of Life. We hope this book will offer a unique and comprehensive perspective, with multiple contributors sharing their end-of-life experiences.


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  • Thank you for sharing…writing certainly offers an outlet of emotion and expression on feelings that leave impressions for others. Bravo.

  • TYRON PILLAY says:


    • Julie Saeger Nierenberg says:

      Thank you for leaving a comment, Tyron. I hope that you don’t lose your father anytime soon, and that when the inevitable time of loss comes, you’ll be able to create as peaceful an experience as possible.

  • I reply with in-depth feelings while warm tears fill the back of my eyes. I’m truly sorry for your loss and at the same time I’m worried about mine. I’m scared of the unknown; that uncharted territory of pain that has started with the constant falling away of my Dad’s memory and the other capabilities that have started to follow.
    My Dad has been the strong silent type and I’m desperate to know him before he’s all gone. I’m desperate to know him before he is an empty shell. I want him to share something he doesn’t know how to share. I want to explain what he seems not to understand. I want to love more than the shell that I see before the shell of a great man isn’t cognitive of me!

    • Julie Saeger Nierenberg says:

      Ricky, your words are very touching as they provoke memories of my own recent feelings. The past is the past and the future is imaginary, so really all we do know about is the present: the here and now.

      My husband’s dad was also the strong, silent type. Years ago, when my husband asked his dad for a hug, and the older man didn’t want to, the son took control of the situation and hugged him. The father was unable to hug his son in return.

      The next time when the son was about to leave, he again asked for a hug and received the same response from his dad. Again the son hugged his father, but this time he felt the older man relax more. The third time was similar but the son asked his dad to hug him back. “Come on, Dad. I want a hug also.” And the father gave him one. Wow, the son felt he’d gone to heaven. Each time they parted, the son asked for a hug and soon the mutual hug happened, naturally. The son could tell his dad also enjoyed it more as time passed.

      You too can make the choice to ask for you want.

      After the dad’s heart operation, he remained unconscious for over three weeks. After one week, the son started to hold his father’s hand and talk to him, telling him that his loved ones wished him to gain consciousness so that they could have some talks. The son noticed that his dad showed facial expressions as though he’d heard. And the son felt good about that. He told his dad stories of what was happening in daily life, of the grandkids and of his brother’s and sister’s family life.

      Eventually the father came to. The son thought that his talking during the unconscious phase had a positive effect, and now they really had time to talk. During this time, the dad shared as he never had before. He told his son about the highlights of his life and expressed his feelings, about the sad and happy things that took place throughout his life. The father was such a strong man who did not wish to show his vulnerability, until their talks near the end of his life.

      All that I can suggest is that you make time to visit, and do it without expectations but with the preference that you can both get to know each other before you must part.

  • stella says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I lost my papa 35 days ago. I feel the same way as you did. There are not enough words to describe the pain of losing a love one especially a good father. One moment he was there and the next, he wasn’t any more. I miss him so much… even when he was sick, i get my strength from him to keep going….

    • Julie Nierenberg says:

      Stella, I am so very sorry for your loss.

      It sounds like you and your father shared a very special bond, just as I did with my own dad. I will always be so grateful for that father-daughter relationship, and I hope your own gratitude for the life you shared will help you in your moments of most intense missing.

      Maybe over time you will sense that your dad can always be a guiding and loving presence in your life. Grief is our love growing and staying with us past the end of a loved one’s life. It’s the part that is never ready to be done with someone we love.

      Peace be with you. Thank you for commenting here, and I am glad you came to read my story, Stella.