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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Emily Stumpf

When Death Comes


Death comes to all of us until our own death arrives.

Death is a fact of life, as we live a lifetime of family and friends that we lose.


This was my thought when two things converged for me last week:  I heard part of Fresh Air’s interview with Alua Arthur, the author of a new book, Briefly Perfectly Human: Making an Authentic Life by Getting Real About the End,[1] and I performed a reading of Sayyida Salme’s account of her husband’s tragic accident and death. I was, in fact, driving back from the recording studio, where I had been working on the audiobook for Letters to the Homeland,[2] when – drained from the reading – I became riveted by what Alua was saying.


Oh my, how Sayyida Salme could have used a death doula – a label Alua gives herself – during this, her incredibly trying time.  We know of birth doulas (midwives),[3] but death doulas? Yes! It makes so much sense: someone to be there when someone close to us is dying, to help us through, before, during, and after.


Only three years after Sayyida Salme arrived in Hamburg, just as she was acclimating to a new world she could never have imagined, here she was, suddenly:  stunned, overwhelmed, grasping, and feeling utterly alone. She had to fight to see her husband, she did not understand his true condition, she struggled to connect with him in his waning, sputtering hours – and then it was over. After which, she could not fathom the loss, she was beside herself bereft, totally unmoored, probably with PTSD, full of pain, in the abyss. Although she wrote her handwritten account some twenty years after the fact, that time remained as raw and anguished for her as ever, as searing as if it had just happened.  I hope my voice, in the translation and the reading, will do her voice justice.


We see a clash of cultures in her desire to be with Heinrich in his last hours and then his body at the end. Alua calls this our “death phobia … where bodies are whisked away to funeral homes just moments after the death has occurred. We don’t take time with the body.” This left Sayyida Salme forcing her way into the hospital despite all the rules, seeking to stay by the corpse after he had passed, having to face a closed casket when it arrived at the house, looking about for a ride when no one included her in the funeral procession, and clinging to the coffin as it was lowered into the ground. To which Alua says, “[t]his death phobia has caused a real crisis, I think, in this country and in the West overall, where we are living out of relationship with nature and with our mortality, which is ultimately a detriment to us as a culture, but also to us as individuals.”


As Alua points out: “We live in community. We die in community.” And for that, we all need “functional death literacy” to deal with those dying around us. And yet, for Sayyida Salme, who lost her father at age 12, her mother at age 15, her first-born son at age 22, her husband at age 26, and her favorite half-brother Sultan right after, she became progressively more and more alone, as her community faded more and more from her. When Heinrich died, it was all too much. She even wished her own death:

When the usual ceremonies were over, and I saw how people got ready to lower my all into the grave, I was gripped by one single wish, to belong to the caste that condemns wives to step onto the funeral pyre and thereby also follow the husband directly into death. What is the act of being burnt alive and the short suffering as compared to the constant and indescribable pain of a poor mortal soul. “These thoughts are heathen,” you will surely be thinking. And so they certainly are, for they fit neither Islam, nor Christianity. Are the many torments we must undergo on this earth not much worse than a short death by fire? (Letters, p. 55)

It rings true when Alua says grief will “find its way through,” whether we want to face it or not. If we fail to acknowledge grief emotionally, it will spill over into our work, our relationships, even our own bodies. “Grief lives in the body and must be accessed at some point. It will force its way.” For Sayyida Salme, the sleepless nights, the ants crawling under her skin, the severe and unceasing headaches were surely caused by grief, mixed in with her concerns about the present and future – where to live, how to live, how to make ends meet, whether to continue this devotion to her husband’s memory in raising the children in his homeland.

My husband died without leaving a will, without ever having spoken even one word about the future of me and the children, much less about how to raise them. Outwardly, I was, of course, free to go wherever I wanted, since my children were still so young and not yet subject to the usual school or military requirements. I had to undergo a huge struggle within myself—one that lasted years—to come to a decision. (Letters, p. 58)

Sayyida Salme lamented the lack of direction, but was nonetheless resolute in her deliberate choice, one she made over and over again as the calamities mounted and her lifestyle declined. It is one of the treasures of this original account, that the repetition of her self-questioning has not been edited out, but instead reappears time and time again, true to her lived experience in her unfailing memory and honor of the dead. She had no death doula, but still found her way – until she herself died a hundred years ago this year.


© Andrea Emily Stumpf, April 22, 2024

* Photo of spent daffodils in the yard by Andrea Emily Stumpf (2024).


[2] My Memoirs audiobook is due out in June 2024; the Letters audiobook will follow sometime later in the year.

[3] My paternal grandmother was a midwife in the Dresden area during Russian occupation after World War II. As she told the story, delivering Russian babies was key to her own survival at a time when many were at risk.

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