Nisha Zenoff and her late son, Victor
Nisha Zenoff and her late son, Victor

Grief counselor’s book gives voice to ‘Unspeakable Loss’

Nisha Zenoff wishes her book didn’t have to exist.

“It’s not a book that I ever wanted to write,” the Tiburon therapist said. “And it’s not a book that I ever wanted anyone to have to read.”

The Unspeakable Loss: How Do You Live After a Child Dies?” took root after Zenoff’s son Victor died in a 1980 hiking accident, right before his 18th birthday.

“It absolutely shattered my heart into a million pieces,” she said.

Nisha Zenoff
Nisha Zenoff

Zenoff, who was already a grief counselor, was emotionally destroyed, as were her husband and two younger children. She felt adrift, but she was also inspired with a new life mission: to provide support to people who have gone through similar experiences.

“It’s the best, if I could help one person’s broken heart,” she said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

The book delves into the most raw and burning questions that address how to live while in incredible emotional pain or, as Zenoff puts it more simply in her book: “Can I survive?”

The entire volume is structured as a series of such questions to provide solace or help. Among them: “How can I live for the rest of my life with this much pain?” and “Will our marriage survive?”

Zenoff also addresses issues around long-term grief, which she said most books don’t cover, such as: “Should I still be feeling this sad?” and “What if I begin to forget my child?” She also includes notes for family and friends about helping someone going through such a loss.

She also touches on question of religion and faith, recounting how after her son’s death, her family sat shiva, following the Jewish tradition. “I did feel that the Jewish laws of mourning were helpful, that they really reflected human experience,” she said in an interview.

But she wrote the book for a broad audience. “I wanted my book to be inclusive of all religions and spiritual paths,” she said, “as well as those for whom faith is not an option.”

Published almost 30 years after Victor’s death, the book had a long journey to fruition. Zenoff, now 77, eventually went back to graduate school and wrote a dissertation on the subject of surviving a child’s death, interviewing countless parents and grandparents who had gone through it. She seemed to have enough material for a book.

Then she put the manuscript aside.

“I had not lived long enough to know how the book ended,” she said.

The manuscript languished in storage for 15 years until Zenoff dreamed that a voice told her to take it out. When she reread it, she said, the words seemed to leap off the page. She continued her research, and “The Unspeakable Loss” was published in 2017, full of stories, including Zenoff’s own.

The book had a curious effect on Zenoff’s family history.

She grew up in Savannah, Georgia, in a large Jewish family. She went to both Orthodox and Reform synagogues, and her family was active in Jewish associations. One of her aunts had a photo over the wall of a young man that drew Zenoff’s attention.

“Here is this huge portrait over the fireplace,” she said. “But nobody talks about it.”

It turned out to be her aunt’s son who had died, and whose name was never mentioned in the family again — at least not until Zenoff’s book was published, when her cousin was able to open up to her about growing up in the shadow of that death.

“It’s never too late to grieve the death of a loved one,” she said.

The book has found its niche. Zenoff has received emails from many readers, some of whom tell her they keep the book nearby for comfort. She will be the keynote speaker in July at the national meeting of the grief support organization the Compassionate Friends; she co-leads the Marin chapter.

All of that will help get her book into the hands of more people — not for her own sake, but to help grieving parents get through the trauma of loss.

“No one has to suffer alone,” she said. “No one has to grieve alone.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.