The Necessity of Forgetting (Or: Losing a Father)


My Father's Typecase

My father's typecase - filled with my own mementos, as well as his

If my father were alive, he would’ve turned 90 years old this week. He was the youngest of six children, born of Russian Jewish immigrants—the only one to be born in the United States. He grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, and chalked the sidewalks to practice calligraphy.

When I lost my father at age 12, I don’t recall being that affected by it. I didn’t cry at his memorial service. I felt a cultural-surface pain, but not a deep or personal pain. At the time, I believed there was something unique about being half-orphaned that set me apart from others my age—a distinguishing yet superficial characteristic that I craved.

As I’ve grown older, his absence has felt more and more pronounced, especially as I’ve come to greater self-understanding—or as I’ve come to learn more about my family and who they are.

I don’t feel distinguished any more—I only feel the slow burning loss of his presence.

Is our response to pain and loss innate or culturally trained? I wish I had been like the wailing mothers deep in Italy, who sob and beat their chests at a funeral or accident scene. I imagine the catharsis is vital to healing.

Recently I’ve come to realize my experience of pain and loss often has a long time delay; I unravel the threads for years, the impact expands over decades. But what solution is there? This process feels natural, fated, in my life.

When browsing City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, I discovered the book Delete. It’s about the necessity to forget. There’s my problem. I seem to have trouble forgetting.

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  • jeannevb

    “Delete” reminds me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. One of my favorite films. I've often wondered if it would be better to forget those painful moments, but Jane, we grow from them. Every ounce of pain we feel changes us and changes our perspective.

    I am one of those Sicilian women who purges my pain and bears all. It's a necessity for me to cry for days before I can pull myself off the bathroom floor and learn from the tsunami that just hit me. I never saw my emotional reactions as a blessing until I read your post this morning. Sigh.

    Who is to say which way of digesting pain and loss is the best. I'm certain by allowing the pain to ferment for years, there's much learning as well. You've certainly given me a lot to ponder this morning. Thank you. Hugs. I may even go down and hug my dad today too.

  • David_N_Wilson

    I lost my father later in life…but there was a lot of regret. He and my mother never got along when I was young, so visits were few and far between. They were like exotic adventures, because his world and mine were so different.

    Later I made half-hearted attempts to re-connect. This time the “little in common” prevented this from working out as well as it might have. We still saw one another seldom, stayed in touch poorly…and then he was gone.

    I don't know what I should have changed, but have lived ever since wishing that I'd found the answer while there was still time…

    Haven't checked out Delete, but will have to do so.


  • Jane Friedman

    Oh goodness – Eternal Sunshine is probably top on my list of favorite films. I am endlessly fascinated with the nature of memory.

    Thank you for sharing your perspective – very much cherish it.

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  • Jane Friedman

    Thanks so much for this.

    Regret is another area I spend lots of time pondering. In high school, I created all kinds of messages to myself about “no regrets.” My favorite song was “Regret” by New World Order. At such a young age (15) – already thinking about regret!

    I just finished reading COMMITTED by Elizabeth Gilbert, and there's a powerful passage where Gilbert's mother is discussing her own satisfaction/happiness with life, and the first step for her is not spending a moment in regret.

    Rabbi Kushner, in a recent NPR interview, mentioned that once we reach a certain age (say, 70), and it's clear we might not achieve certain dreams, or become more accomplished, our happiness is connected to how well we can let those things go — or, not live in regret/bitterness. (Worth listening to:…)

  • David_N_Wilson

    That makes sense, I think. Still, to me what seems important is the ability to focus on the dreams that *are* still possible. As an author of more than two decades, I have not lost sight of the fact that I have improvement ahead…that I have words to share.

    I've noticed it in older music groups – they play nothing new, just rehash what they've already done…and they fade. The same is true of authors. You see less and less that is new – if they don't find another outlet, mentoring, speaking, teaching…then they fade.

    Never Gray…that's what I want to title my autobiography. I wrote a short story with a colleague – A Poem of Adrian, Grey. In the story, there is a girl who writes poetry about people…when she writes about them, and the poem is finished, they begin to fade. The protagonist tries to get her to write about herself…she's terrified, and when she does he's frantic to rebuild her from what she becomes as she starts to fade…


  • Jane Friedman

    Reading your comment, I have to agree there are differences. I can conceive of maybe three major types: (1) involuntary and unknowable in advance, (2) willfully voluntary, even planned, like when we leave or abandon a person, place, or thing, and (3) inflicted upon us by someone else, which may involve misunderstanding, abandonment, rejection, and unspeakable acts like murder.

  • Dan Leone

    You have given me so much to think about today. 16 months ago, my father died. Earlier today, I was in the basement trying to clean his workbench for the first time since his death. Every single stupid broken tool that he refused to throw away, every single scrap of paper and every single remnant of him he left behind became a critical link to the man I loved. It became an ultimately futile exercise as I was unable to separate junk from the sentimental.

    You may not have intended for the comments to go in the direction they did, but I just want to thank you for a beautiful post and a very relevant blog. I recently discovered your blog and not only devour it every chance I get, but I find myself re-reading some of the same posts (something I RARELY ever do).

    Have a great evening.


  • Jane Friedman

    I feel grateful & blessed that you and others can share stories about such personal losses. What strikes me is that these moments happen to us – like you describe – and they carry such meaning, but how often do we have a chance to convey the weight of that to other people? I suppose that's one reason I write, and why we all share these stories. It feels like an essential part of our humanity.

    My utmost thanks to you. I imagine we are helping each other through these words more than we can possibly know.

  • Theresa Milstein

    It would probably be hard for you process grief at age twelve like you would now. It makes sense that you were able to experience regret when you were older.

    I lost both of my grandmothers when I was already grown, but my different relationships with them and the circumstances causing their deaths changed my grieving process.

    I've always wondered about those Italian women beating their chests. They're expected to have that outward emotion because of their culture, but do they all feel like that inside? Probably not.

  • Daryl

    I have to wonder at the differences of loss. I lost my brother to a skiing accident when I was fourteen years old. There are still many days when he is one my mind 25 years later.

    I lost both my parents in July, 2000. But they're still alive. It was a problem my parents were unable or unwilling to face. They've abandoned all seven of their children. Here is a form of loss that emulates death because my parents died for me that day. I have no idea where they live or if they're okay. I heard a rumor through a distant relative that my mother has cancer. I can't console, hug or cry with them.

  • Jane Friedman

    Yes, that sounds right. Funny, though, in my youth, I never felt like I didn't fully understand the way of the world! I guess that overconfidence is typical.

  • Birgitte Necessary

    Beautiful post. I've lost two fathers. One raised me (my step father) the other loved me after high school when I tracked him down and we reconnected, (my biological father). Both were instrumental in the lives of my kids until both of them died, within a few years of each other. One found, then lost. One lost, then found, then lost. Neither one ever forgotten.

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  • John Worsley

    My mom's dad died when I was 10. We were living on the opposite coast, and she flew out to the funeral. She didn't take me and my siblings, so his death remained a remote event. When I received the $100 he left me — an enormous sum at that age — I reacted in a way I still feel guilty about: I thought, “maybe someone else will die and I'll get more money.” But it's clear to me that I had already hardened myself against loss. Something had already happened to me, at that young age, to leave me feeling matter-of-factly about death. It's only recently, with the rapid-fire death of two grandparents and a beloved dog, that I've been able to grieve over anyone.

    I heard a brief interview with the author of Delete, and found myself mostly disagreeing with him. Part of the disagreement was on the technology side, but I have to assume part of it stemmed from the fact that I have the opposite problem; I have trouble remembering. I seem to have made an early decision, when my mom divorced my dad, to block out my life before that point, and I think that decision morphed into a tendency to block out painful experiences. This continued well into adulthood. I also have chronic insomnia, and my memory is also spotty from that. The end result is that I can't recall most of my life, and let me tell you, that deeply saddens me. I feel I would give anything to be able to recall those painful experiences. They're part of what made me who I am now, so without them, how can I understand myself?

  • Jane Friedman

    Makes the cycle feel instrinsic, majestic. Thank you for sharing.

  • Jane Friedman

    Incredibly touched by your story, John. Thank you for such openness.

    I have to admit that my first impression of DELETE (though I still haven't read a page) is that I'd find much of it objectionable. On the other hand, I wonder how much we sabotage our present and future momentum by ruminating/framing/analyzing the past (its riches or its detritus, depending on your view). There's a book in that. I'm hoping for Alain de Botton to tackle it!

  • ruthannekrause

    Beautiful communication! Necessity to forget? I don't think so! Your posting brought tears to my eyes–and my father died only 11 years ago at the age of 84. I can only imagine how it would affect someone whose lost her father at age 12. A loss of a parent at that age would affect you developmentally. How do you forget that? Your father would have been (and probably IS) proud of you and what you have done with your life.

  • John Worsley

    Yes, ruminating. I don't think the problem lies either with the past or our memories of it, but with our inability to let it go. It's an understandable inability. Healing from past hurts is possible for all of us, but often remains elusive. This topic always reminds me of the beginning of the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine. The captain of the station is taken by otherdimensional aliens back to a tender moment with the wife he lost, a loss which he's still bitter and heartbroken about, and they tell him, “You live here.”

  • Ludovicah

    At forty-five years old I am on the brink of losing my own father, so it is interesting to compare and contrast your words with how I think i would have felt had my father died when I was very young.
    I think realization dawns so much slower on all of us than we would like to believe. Implications of an event unravel with the passing of time, as our perception of the world and our depth of understanding changes.
    As a genealogist, my dead relations inspire me to yearn wistfully after all the fascinating detail of a lost world they might have provided me with, if only I had had the chance to speak to them in time..
    It seems to me the reason why history is fated to repeat itself and injustice recur time and time again is because “THE ANSWERS” that we all seek have fallen into the mute gaps between the living and the dead.
    I feel this is probably true for all of us, and that writers and archivists are at the vanguard of vanquishing the silences but there is so much of it, we are forever fighting a losing battle.
    When I was twelve, it seemed to me my father was a tense irritable person who was forever nagging about duty and responsibility and preventing me from doing as I pleased. I'm certain that, had I lost him then I would be more the loser than I would ever have had an opportunity to realise. Maturity and my own experiences of parenthood have led me to look at my father in a very different light and I have had the privilege to watch him mellow. I see a man who worked hard and long hours for his family, who fussed and worried because he loved us so very much. Now I see his tenderness as a grandparent, his gratitude to me for helping with tasks now beyond his failing abilities and his sadness as he prepares to take leave of us all, and the downside is that I get to see him in pain, without hope of a cure, and feel the full force and tragedy of the implications for our whole family. That is something a twelve year old would be unlikely to experience so if there is a upside to losing a parent at a young age I guess that could be it. Horrible either way, ultimately, but to be spared witnessing the full suffering in great detail, right now I'd count that as a plus

  • Jane Friedman

    Thanks so much, Ruth.

    It can be comforting to look for small convergences & connections — and remember. This past week I was in NYC for an important board meeting; and on my dad's 90th birthday, I delivered a presentation trying to encapsulate the whole of Writer's Digest, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.

    It can be satisfying to notice such convergences and use them as a jumping off point — to contemplate something bigger than we are.

  • Jane Friedman

    My gratitude to you for sharing this!

    Fortunately I have very positive memories of my father & his nature (he was 69 when he died, so perhaps he had already mellowed when I knew him!) — but there's tremendous complication in any remembrance of him that I must save for another blog post.

    Due to his age, I didn't escape seeing him decline & suffer. He died of cancer, and spent his final months in a nursing home, where I visited him once with my mother. He was very confused (onset of dementia, maybe Alzheimer's), and begged me to help him escape. It was a moment of despair that feels unmatched – yet I don't think I fully understood what was happening because I asked my mother when he could come home, and she rather starkly said he wouldn't, and it wasn't until then that I really grasped what was happening.

  • Jane Friedman

    Sharing a pingback that's not being captured by Disqus – a wonderful post:

  • Brenda Sedore

    Thanks for the link, Jane. :) I've been reading your older posts and enjoying the insight. Love your blog.

  • Beth Bartlett/plaidearthwom

    My father died when I was 8. I had a similar reaction, not quite feeling the loss until much later. I think as children we simply don't have the emotional maturity or foresight to see how much we've lost. We don't see that there will be no father-daughter dances, no asking him for advice, and even no embarrassing moments when he grills our prom dates. As these moments come in life, we feel the loss deepen with each milestone. I don't think grieving has become a social pressure; if anything, it's eroded over the generations, especially in our current Prozac-gotta-be-happy-all-the-time society. Years ago, especially in stoic families like mine, grief didn't have to be loud and shrieking; people wore black, then graduated to black armbands, and then only wore the loss in their hearts. The gradual fading of grief in forgetting is one of those brain-built blessings; otherwise, every pain would stay fresh, spiky and new. But too much forgetting robs our loved ones of the immortality they deserve. I've come to the belief that true healing of the heart is the ability to be sad with a smile, remembering the pain of the loss but also celebrating the time we had. My only regret in forgetting details of my father: it was so long ago that I've forgotten the sound of his voice. That's something I wish I could have kept.

  • Angela Parson Myers

    I lost my father 5 years ago and my mother about 6 months ago, and didn't cry for either. Not that I didn't love my parents, only that it was obvious they had reached the ends of their lives. All this to tell you what many years of experience and observation has taught me: Every person who suffers a loss grieves in that person's unique way and time, and we should never think less of ourselves if we don't fulfill others' expectations for depth and/or length of grieving. We should simply embrace it and learn from it whatever lessons it has for us. Then move on in the best way we can.

  • Jane Friedman

    Lovely insight. I don't know if any of us deserve immortality, but certainly it feels like one of the reasons we are driven to have children – so that someone remembers us.

  • Jane Friedman

    Yes, I have to agree – it makes no sense to judge, criticize, or assume anything about people based on their grieving process.

  • bobiozzia


    From my perspective, I don't think that “trouble forgetting” is a problem. Quite the contrary, not forgetting is a necessity we all need to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

    The problem arises when we become captive slaves of our memories and are unable to grow and live happy, productive lives as a result. As the man once said, “Keep passing the open windows.”
    —Bob Iozzia

  • Evelyn

    I just wanted to identify with the fact that it takes years to start feeling. When my father died (I was 15), I cried a bit but then went on with my life, strong. Only years later I'm discovering the void that was created with his departure. I cry now more often than before. Maybe because I'm contemplating his potential input in my life that never happened all these years. Or maybe I just wish I knew him better.
    Our psyche “forgets” things that are too painful. Sometimes for a while, sometimes forever. I let my memory be as it may. I don't want to forget but I want to learn how to tame.
    When you said that you wished you could wail like Italian mothers and that you don't express yourself like that, thus there might not be a proper catharsis, I thought of all the moments that the opportunity presented itself. Those pangs of random tears – an opportunity. Pangs of freewriting about it – an opportunity. And much more.

  • Jane Friedman

    I am glad to find someone else not afraid (or compulsed, as I am) to forget. I think I fear that slavery you mention! :)

  • Jane Friedman

    Thanks so much, Evelyn. If we are ever within a 300-mile vicinity, we need to have a coffee together (or a bourbon)!

  • Evelyn

    Or both… That would be delightful, Jane! By the way, I just moved back from Pennsylvania (I suppose that'd be within 300-mile radius). But what's the use of it now? I don't own a time machine. Yet. :-)

  • Evelyn

    Add-on: if we do have coffee and bourbon, the topic of vegetarianism would definitely suit us both. Among other five hundred probably :-)

  • Jane Friedman


  • Jennifer (Conversion Diary)

    Wow, what a touching post. I read it the other day and have walked around thinking about it, trying to formulate my thoughts. I react to trauma in a similar way that you do; though I haven't lost a parent, I have been through some difficult situations and, like you, didn't react much at all at the time.

    I think that some of us feel so deeply, we're afraid to open ourselves up to the chest-beating catharsis. Your beautiful post got me thinking about my own experience, and it made me realize what I think has been holding me back: a worry that, if I were to “go there” and open the door to those memories and their implications and all power they contain, it would require a spiritual and mental strength that I'm not sure I have. Instead of a healthy wailing and crying, I might end up catatonic. Maybe that's why I too have been processing it all bit by bit, in chunks that I feel like I can handle. Though I'm not sure that's a good thing. Maybe it is healthy to let yourself experience it all, to trust that you'll be carried through it.

    Anyway, all that is to say, thank you for sharing.

  • Jane Friedman

    Really appreciate your comment – thank you, Jennifer!

    I think we can set these things aside for good reason. Most of us still have to move forward, make a living, take care of others, etc.

    When I have opportunities to slow down (especially on a long drive, or a vacation), that's when small realizations and emotions can creep up on me without me noticing. I don't mind the time delay as much as I'm surprised by it. And I've stopped telling myself that I'm “over” things. By the very fact of telling myself I'm “over” something, I'm probably not.

  • Amanda Griffith

    Hello Jane,

    I really identified with your story about losing your father and how it affected who you are. My father died of Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) when I was 35. I had a two-year-old and my husband had just come down with double pneumonia. My pre-teen daughter took over care of my spouse and my toddler and I flew up to Connecticut. Three days blurred into dashing after my scrabbling boy, picking him up and soothing him, and finally having him crawl up on the pulpit while I was reading a poem my sister wrote about my dad. She sobbed. My eyes were dry as baby powder. Why couldn't I cry? Didn't I care about losing my father? True, I hadn't seen him much in the last few years as he'd been hooked up to a breathing machine in a New Britain Hospital, and I had a full time job and family in Texas. I told myself I had prepared myself for his loss, and so had expected this outcome. It didn't surprise or shock me.

    Months later, still with no tears shed, I was driving home from work with my children strapped into the back seat, listening to the radio and reflecting on my day. I fiddled with the stations and found a Glen Miller song. Wham! Emotion overwhelmed me. A wailing gasp shook me from head to toe. Tears not wept for months flooded down my face as I succumbed to the feeling. I pulled off the road. Five minutes later, the storm fizzled out, and now I was glad so glad I could finally cry for my daddy with all the stored tears.

    Please read where Thai Le writes of the tradition her father had established for special occasions that brought meaning to his death.

  • Jane Friedman

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    I know much about the power of drives and memorable songs — especially combining the two in a single, unexpected experience.

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  • Ajay

    Dear Jane,
    I stumbled upon this beautiful post of yours, as i have been trying for years to find closure to my father’s death. I was 6 then and 35 years later i am making a film about it. But I am struggling to put words to express this loss, this void in order to make the film more accessible to viewers who may see it. My mother never spoke about him and I grew up not knowing much about my father. She even burnt the old only black n white family album we had. Something I find very hard to forgive her for. I guess I am trying to create an image of my father, trying to get to know him. And with this film hope to resurrect him in a way that
    I will never lose him again. You think that it is even possible?

    As a 6yr old seeing the coffin being lowered into the grave, has made me develop a deep fear of losing people I love. It has made me non-confrontational, easy-going and glossing over hurt. I try to remember anything about my dad or his family by preserving whatever I could lay my hands on before the family house was sold and demolished. Old LPs, old photographs, etc. In the absence of a grave (we couldn’t afford to own it), I feel a certain need to have something physical to hold on to. I wonder if this film do that for me.

    Thanks for this wonderful blog you maintain. You write so well! And like you, I too obsess about how new tech is shaping our lives while I teach :)

  • Jane Friedman

    Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. You might not be able to capture everything in words, but in visuals, yes.

    One thing I’ve learned, though, is that loss is both brutal and inevitable.