To tell the final story: Insights from an Alaskan obit writer

You might say Heather Lende has a way with death. But it’d be more accurate to say that she understands life. A master storyteller, she writes obituaries that reveal some of life’s most important lessons.

Heather writes obituaries in the small town of Haines, Alaska (population 2,400). I first met her there a cold spring day in 1984, when I was the news reporter at the local public radio station.

Like me, Heather and her husband Chip were wandering souls, searching for a home. They found it in Haines, where they built a house and raised a beautiful family. Chip purchased the local lumber yard, which he runs to this day, and Heather started writing obituaries for the weekly Chilkat Valley News. Turns out she had quite a knack for it.

For nearly 30 years, Heather has documented the passing of most everyone who has died in Haines. She steps into living rooms of mourning friends and relatives, transcends their grief, and writes vibrant accounts of love and loss, adventure, disaster, discovery, and, occasionally, redemption. For some folks, these are the only stories ever formally told about their lives.

Drawing on her remarkable experiences, Heather authored three hit books, which overflow with wisdom, wonder, and joy. Her latest, Find the Good, was a bestseller on multiple lists. Every sentient human ought to read it.

I still regard Haines as my hometown, and I make it a point to visit at least once a year. Heather and Chip remain dear friends, and recently I was lucky enough to spend a few days with them. While there, I talked to Heather about storytelling—and how I often reference obituaries in my workshops and presentations as some of the most meaningful stories ever told about people. Here are highlights of our conversation.

You've written 500 obituaries, so let me begin with the question of what, in the end of life, ends up actually mattering to people?

It's relationships. That's what is really the most meaningful at the end—the people they left behind, the people they loved and who cared about them.

The nature of it can be pretty varied. I mean, you might say about a person that “she was kind and generous.” I've written obituaries where “kind and generous” meant she paid the college tuition for underprivileged kids, and others where the person brought cookies to the post office every Tuesday. In a eulogy, those are the things that I look for, the specific details.

I try not to place a value judgment on any of it. Being an obituary writer means you're a diplomat in a lot of ways. I'm very careful to not put somebody up on a pedestal. 

I think that’s one reason your obituaries stand up so well. You work to put aside judgement and present people’s lives in the terms that mattered to them. How do you get to the heart of that?

I think it's important to ask. You need to dig deep in trying to understand what was meaningful in that person’s life. I don't think there’s any right answer. One person's idea of meaning is going to be really different from somebody else's.

The people I write about who end up being the saddest are the people who never really thought about meaning. It hadn’t even crossed their minds to consider: What am I doing here? What's my purpose? What’s my effect on other people? Sometimes they don't ever find out. And to me, personally, that's sad.

In my work as a consultant, I see a lot of people who want to find meaning in their jobs. Are there any big truths you see about the role of work in people’s lives?

First of all, the obituaries I’ve written are all about people who’ve lived in Haines, Alaska. So, right away it's self-selecting in terms of the type of people that live here. Typically very few are here for a career. Many are people who came here looking for meaning in life. Then there're the people who were born and raised here, who keep on keeping on. And of course there's the Tlingit people who have been here from time immemorial. So when I write obituaries, they’re not necessarily based on the standard accomplishments that you might find in a New York Times obituary, because they don't really matter here.

So, what accomplishments end up mattering in a place like Haines? 

The ones people here tend to care about are not necessarily professional. The fact that you volunteered at the same organization for 20 years could be a major part of a person’s whole life. And where people do have professions or run businesses, it’s not about getting rich. I look at Chip, and I don't think the lead in his obituary would be about Lutak Lumber, even though he's worked at it more than anything for 30 years. But he doesn't see that as his identity, necessarily. Where it probably really matters is with his employees and the families he's enabled.

There’s a lot of pride in supporting a family, so that makes almost any kind of work here meaningful. And then there’s meaning in the things you do that you don’t get paid for, which might be as simple as cooking a good meal or making something beautiful.

For me, a big component of a good life is something outside yourself—doing something for a community or greater good somewhere. A really important way to find meaning in your life is to volunteer to take care of somebody or something else. The other thing I’ve learned as I get older, which you take for granted when you're younger, is that if you want to have friends then you've got to be a friend. You have to make an effort.

In 2005, you almost died when you were run over by a truck in a bicycle accident in Haines. You saw so many sad things in the assisted living facility in Seattle where you recuperated that you decided to become a hospice volunteer in Haines when you recovered. You’ve done that now for more than a decade, and I’m wondering how that’s informed you. Have you’ve ever seen someone become enlightened at the very end of life?

Not necessarily. Not as much as you'd like to think. I find that people tend to be the way they are, and they just become more so as they get older. The people who used to be a little bit grumpy get really grumpy. The people who tipped toward happy get really happy.

It’s not that people can never change, but there has to be some moment where they decide to. And usually the change occurs because of a relationship. It’s never too late.

For instance, I can think of a man who had a deep prejudice against foreigners, and he ended up being taken care of by a physician’s assistant from Thailand or someplace. At first, he was grumpy about this. “You can hardly understand what she's saying! I'm from Haines—why is this person even here?” Then, pretty soon, he befriended her. “She makes this wonderful food! She has these great children!” It completely changed his way of being, even as a very old and very sick person. He never was quick to judge a foreigner after that, just because of that one person in his house.

Heather Lende at her beachfront home in Haines, Alaska

Heather Lende at her beachfront home in Haines, Alaska

Do you see a lot of people with regrets?

Well, one thing I do know is that you can’t impose on other people what you think their regrets ought to be. Because you can never really know their full story. I always think of St Paul, who said “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

One thing I do see, which seems to stay with people longer than regret, is shame. That's the thing people hold closer when they get very old. And even when it seems there’s nothing shameful anymore—you know, somebody who had a baby out of wedlock and gave it up for adoption and they never reconnected, or someone who feels really bad about something that happened when they were in a war, or who felt that maybe they had something to do with an industrial accident where a friend got hurt. They put that burden on themselves. They think they'll be judged, but they just aren’t. I see it when I'm sitting there talking to their family members. I see all the love. I think most of the time that sort of pain can be relieved with an earlier conversation. But people too often don't do it.

Is there a story of forgiveness or reconciliation that sticks with you?

Well, I remember this old guy who was dying. He was in our church and he didn't have any family and no one to take care of him. So our Episcopalian priest took him—she redid her office, put the hospital bed in there, and we all took turns taking care of him in hospice for, I don't know, maybe about a month.

At times it was pretty grim. He was grumpy and unsettled, like he was waiting for something. And then one day his daughter called. None of us even knew he had a daughter. And the two of them had this big, long telephone conversation. He’d had a lot of fight in him before that, but then when she called, he was obviously lifted from whatever had been weighing on him. He wasn't as labored, he wasn't fighting death as much. And the next day, he died.

Did you ever find out the details? Did you ever hear from that daughter?

No. We didn’t need to. I think he felt better about whatever it was that was burdening him. And in the end, that’s what mattered.

 In their review of her latest book, The New York Times notes that Heather “traces tragic life arcs: a friend who receives a diagnosis of terminal breast cancer, a fisherman who slips off his boat and drowns, pulled away by a swift current from the life ring his daughter had tossed him . . . Lende finds bountiful evidence that the human response to suffering ‘binds us together across dinner tables, neighborhoods, towns and cities, and even time’. . . . Her insistence that there is solace to be found even during life’s darkest moments can be as bracing as a polar bear plunge.”

Read more from Heather on her website. Better yet, go buy one of her books here.