WRITING ABOUT THE DEAD presents memoirists with a special set of problems, as well as remarkable freedom, and each writer will wrestle and debate with the ups and downs of the assignment in his or her own way and time. The one thing that is guaranteed to each of us as we write about the dead, though, is insight. It’s an undeniable, unavoidable gift that comes with time, distance, and the particular brand of reflection only writing allows.
But what to do with that insight? For instance, can you replace the judgments you once had and recast a relationship in a more healing light? Let’s ask Virginia Simpson, author of the highly-acclaimed, just-published, The Space Between, A Memoir of Mother-Daughter Love at the End of Life.
The Benefits of Exploring My Relationship With My Mother
Through Writing After She Was Dead
by Virginia Simpson, Ph.D., FT
My mother and I had many conversations while she was alive, but I learned the most from the ones we had after she died. These replays of actual discussions appear in my book The Space Between: A Memoir of Mother-Daughter Love at the End of Life (She Writes Press, April 2016). I didn’t initially intend to write about my mother, but once I started, I found myself on an exploration and excavation of our relationship through the prism of the last six years of her life when a life-threatening condition necessitated she live with me. Our story took hold and never let go until I finished writing the last page.
Life moves fast with little if any time to reflect as we interact with others.
The slowing down inherent in writing acted like a microscope revealing details and aspects of our personalities and interactions not visible while my mother lived.
Because she was never going to read what I wrote, I was unshackled by the necessity to protect her feelings and was free to expose the truth of our complex connection. I had time to examine each moment, each detail—time to see and sometimes reject my earlier judgments or need to be right.
Translating our conversations into dialogue deepened my understanding and broadened my heart in ways not possible when my mother was alive. Time and distance gave clarity to what I could not see clearly in the moment. The stories couldn’t change because a major character was gone—I changed in the telling and reflecting.
The benefits of expressive writing are well known, but it’s not enough to simply put down your emotions—that’s what we do in our first draft. The real benefits are derived as we continue to rewrite and hone our story by reflecting on the events and finding their deeper meaning. Through this, our narrative—the story we tell ourselves—is transformed and what once hurt us loses its ability to cause us any more pain. Writing about a deceased loved one allows us to relate to this person in new ways thus enabling the most profound healing.
The stories about my mother were painful to recall, but as I wrote and rewrote and examined and reexamined each event, I uncovered sides to the story I had missed as we were living our days. My mother was revealed to me as a woman of great strength—a woman who loved deeply, a woman who had been hurt immensely, and a woman who discovered that having fun, being kind, and loving were of utmost importance.
I had to write about her to be able to pull away the mask of judgments so that I could finally know this person who I thought I knew so well—my mother, Ruth.
The Space Between: A Memoir of Mother-Daughter Love at the End of Life
(She Writes Press, 2016), an excerpt
Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that
wears you out . . .
SUNDAY, AUG U S T 1 , 1 9 9 9
If this were a screenplay for a movie, the opening would read
EXT . FLAT- R O O F C R E A M – C O L O R HOUSE —DAY
Threatening Witch music from The Wizard of Oz. Da da–da da
–da da da.
But this isn’t a movie. This is my life, and there is no soundtrack
or theme music.
“It’s too hot,” Mom grumbles as she gets out of my car and hur-
ries to the front door.
“I know, Mom. That’s summer in the desert.”
I open the door and step aside to allow Mom to enter
first. She skulks past me into my home, now her home, with a
scowl. Maggie strolls over to us with a big white Flossie, a toy
that doubles as doggie dental floss, in her mouth, tail wagging.
Mom smiles and pats Maggie on her head. After I say hello
and scratch her favorite spot on her back near her tail, Maggie
saunters away from us and plops down on the cool tile floor in
I escort Mom to her new bedroom and point out the canis-
ters I’ve had installed in the ceiling over the head of the queen-
size bed so she’ll have plenty of light when she reads.
“I had the cable company come out and your TV is all
hooked up and ready to go.”
She nods and walks over to the window to the left of the
dresser where the TV sits, and looks out through the open shutter
slats. “The trees are pretty,” she says.
“Yes. We have Meyer lemon, tangelo, pink grapefruit, orange,
and peach trees. The peaches are already gone and the grapefruit,
orange, and tangelo will ripen in the fall.”
“I’ve never heard of a Meyer lemon.”
“Oh, it’s the best lemon you’ve ever had. The rind is thinner
and the juice much sweeter than the normal lemon. I always keep
Meyer lemon ice cubes in the freezer so you can put them in a
glass of water.”
“You know I don’t drink water.” Her face puckers as she
sticks out her tongue and she shakes her head.
“Well, you’re going to have to now that you’re living in the
“I don’t have to do anything.” She turns away from me and
doesn’t see my fist glued to my scrunched mouth. The carpet
mutes the impatient sound of my foot tapping against the floor.
I want to tell her how crucial water is in the desert, but I’m
certain she won’t listen to me. Time to move on.
“Let me show you the bathrooms you’ll be using.”
I lead her through the doorway to the right of her wicker bed
into the bathroom connected to her new bedroom, one of the
two bathrooms she’ll use. The bathroom consists of two rooms;
the one we’re in has a brown-tiled counter with a white farmer’s
sink and is next to a smaller room with a toilet and bathtub/
shower combination with the same brown tile. I open the drawers
to show Mom where I’ve placed her toiletries.
“Thank you,” Mom nods and moves towards the room with
the toilet. She stops at the door, and her body stiffens. “What’s
that?” She points to the seat with handles above the toilet.
“That’s a commode. It has bars to hold onto, and the high-
er seat will make it easier for you to sit because you won’t need
to bend down so far.” Her eyes narrow when I add, “It comes
with a bucket, and if you’re ever too sick, we can bring this
into your room so that you can use the toilet without having
to walk as far.”
Only after the words escape from my mouth do I realize this
is too much information. I’ve never been good at knowing when
to quit talking while I was ahead, and I’m certain the sight of the
commode had me behind before I opened my mouth. Yep, I lost
her at “commode.”
I rush her out of the room and escort her down the hall to
the other bathroom.
“Mom, I got you grab bars to hold onto. I bought the best
ones I could find.” I point to the decorative bar outside the shower.
“I decided this should be the room where you bathe because
these couldn’t be installed in the other bathroom without making
it awkward for you to get into the shower.”
I open the shower door and show her the other grab bar,
the extra-safe non-slip mat, bathing chair, and special handheld
showerhead I bought for her. I watch her like an expectant child,
but I’m rewarded with a frown and a grunt.
I lead her back to her bedroom, where I’m sure she’ll be hap-
pier with the other things I got her.
Mom walks over to the dresser and her eyes rest on her black
inlaid onyx set consisting of a large handheld mirror; a cracked,
smaller mirror with a bendable handle; and a small, lidded, round
jar. She fondles each piece with a wistful smile. She’s had this set
for as long as I can remember. I have no idea when she bought
them or if they were a gift. I don’t know why I never asked.
She turns back toward me. “Where’d you put my jewelry case?”
“In the top drawer.”
She opens the drawer and picks up a weathered, oval, leather
case and rubs her fingers over the abstract, raised pattern carved
into the tan surface. She holds it with the same gentleness a
mother holds her baby.
“My mother gave this to me,” she says. “She’d been in the
hospital for months and she was dying and somehow she got this
for me. I don’t know how she did it. This is the only thing I re-
member her ever giving me.” She shakes her head ever so slightly
and with a wistful sigh returns the case to the drawer.
“That’s so special, Mom.”
“She was special. My mother was the smartest person I’ve
“Including me, Mom?” I say with a playful smile.
“No. Of course not. You’re brilliant.”
I don’t let her words inside where they might soothe me.
Why do her harsh words penetrate and stick while her praise
echoes off into the distance?
“I have more things for you, Mom.” I point towards the glass
nightstand at the left of her bed.
Mom picks up and begins to fiddle with the alarm system I
got her, a small white square on a white string. “What is this?”
“An alarm system you wear around your neck so that if
something happens and you need me, all you do is push the little
button and I’ll be alerted to come help you.”
“Oh,” she says as frost begins to cover everything in the
room. You’ve never lived until you’ve heard one of my mother’s
“ohs.” That small, two-letter word speaks volumes, but the tune
is anything but melodic. No one can chop a word into shards like
my mom. I’m certain she doesn’t realize how she slices into me
when she does this.
Although I’m hurt, I’m not ready to give up.
“I got you something special, Mom.” I hold a small, gift-
wrapped box in my outstretched hand.
Mom hesitates but doesn’t look at me before she takes the box.
“Open it, Mom. I think you’ll like it.”
I’m certain she’ll love the pretty, pink leather Raika calendar
and address book. I scouted everything at The Village Inscriber,
an upscale stationery store in my neighborhood, before I pur-
chased this expensive gift for Mom. I’d never buy anything this
pricey for myself, but after all Mom has been through I wanted
to give her a gift that would make her feel special.
She opens the box, pulls back the tissue, and stares at her gift
for a moment before removing it. No smile.
“Do you like it?” My neck cranes forward and my eyes are
wide with expectation.
I want her to toss me something, but she just looks at it
and when she does speak, her “yes” is as dry as the harsh desert
I swallow hard.
I can’t believe how excited I was to show Mom everything I
did for her. I want her to be comfortable and happy here, but so
far she hasn’t liked anything I’ve done. I slink inside myself and
try to shove down the rush of emotions rumbling inside, but
they’re too strong. I wish I didn’t feel so unsettled by her pres-
ence and ruffled by my feelings of failure. I never stop to consider
what this massive disruption to her life means to my mother, or
that she has just faced down her own death. I fail to consider
her vulnerability or how afraid she might be. I don’t know if she
is aware of those things in herself, or if this is her experience,
because I don’t ask. We seem to be isolated, blind women lost in
this new life, and we continue to bump against one another. Our
relationship reminds me of “All I Know,” the Jimmy Webb song
performed by Simon & Garfunkel, which speaks of the way two
people can easily bruise each other despite knowing at a deeper
level that their love is the only thing of importance.
And so, although the physical space between us is smaller
than it has been for almost thirty years, the emotional space is our
own Grand Canyon, deep, wide, and treacherous.
“I’m extremely tired, Ginni. I’m going to lie down and take
“Okay. You must be exhausted after all you’ve been through.”
I kiss her on the cheek before I make my escape.
I race across the house towards my bedroom. Maggie fol-
lows and scoots in before I shut the door. I can’t scream or swear
because I no longer live alone and Mom might hear me, so I am
in a silent fury as I pace back and forth across the room, shaking,
my insides on fire.
This is the first day, the first hour. What have I gotten my-
Virginia A. Simpson, Ph.D., FT is a bereavement care specialist and Executive Counseling Director for hundreds of funeral homes throughout the United States and Canada. She is the Founder of The Mourning Star Center for grieving children and their families, which she ran from 1995 to 2005, and author of the memoir The Space Between: A Memoir of Mother-Daughter Love at the End of Life (She Writes Press, April 2016) about her journey caring for her ailing mother. Virginia has appeared on numerous television and radio programs. She holds a Fellowship in Thanatology from the Association of Death Education & Counseling (ADEC) and has been honored for her work by the cities of Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Palm Springs, and Rancho Mirage. She lives in El Dorado Hills, California with her husband Bob and Golden Retriever Shelby.
HOW TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK
Love the author featured above? Did you learn something in the how-to? Then you’ve got to read the book. And you can. I am giving away one copy, and all you have to do to win is leave a comment below about something you learned from the writing lesson or the excerpt. I’ll draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight Monday, April 11. Unfortunately, only readers within the US domestic postal service can receive books.