The following article is adapted by the author from her book With or Without Me: A Memoir of Losing and Finding, which has been translated into English by Alta L. Price (Plough, March 2022).

In front of us, our empty plates. “Kids,” Dad said. He didn’t really look at us; it was just a tentative, passing glance. Probably because he didn’t want to catch our eyes and risk dragging us down with him into the opening abyss. It was the day after Christmas. I was fifteen. My little brother Johannes was sitting next to me, on my left. Steffi, my older sister, was on my right.

Mom had placed the soup bowl on the table. She was sitting silently next to Dad.


“We need to tell you something very, very … We need to tell you …” Dad’s eyes teared up and his voice broke, and we stared at him, startled. He never cried.

Mom reached for his hand without looking up; she gripped it tightly, with her head down. I stared at the white parting in her black hair. Her voice was soft. “We have to tell you something very sad …” Dad interrupted her with sobs, catching himself. I didn’t breathe, because it seemed to me that there was a nightmare growing around us, filling the room, coming in from the walls, which were dissolving, and leaving just us and the table, floating in the dark. A dream that could have just as quickly retreated and let the room be a room again – but then Dad went on to say that he had bad news from the doctor. That he would soon have to die. That he had an incurable cancer, and that nothing more could be done for him.

My sister gasped. “What did the doctor say? What is he saying?” She wasn’t crying, but her voice was so high, it was as if it were coming from her nose or eyes, or from between her eyes.

“Three weeks to three months,” Dad said.

There were no more words at the table, just the sounds of clenched throats.

We sat there, my parents and siblings, like children who couldn’t comfort one another. Our empty plates shone white. My body had seized up all at once, like when your foot falls asleep.

Image by Sanjeri/

He wanted to fight for us, Dad went on. His face was red and wet, his nose running, and his teeth were set. One hand was balled into a fist. “I’m going to fight that fucking cancer,” he said, almost spitting out the word “fight.” “I promise you that: I’ll fight to stay with you,” he added, and he looked at me as if he were crying for forgiveness.

His father had died when he was seventeen, of rheumatism, shortly after the war. Dad knew much better than we children what horror he was fighting for us.

My parents flew off to America. They sought out specialists. Chemo. Radiation. Something with selenium. The diagnosis – only three months to live – turned out to be wrong. No one knew for sure.

His type of cancer was so rare, there were at most two hundred people with it at that time, worldwide. In the different clinics he visited, he sat upright in bed during the doctors’ rounds, his medical files spread over his lap on his white blanket. He studied everything carefully; he knew what was going on better than some of his doctors. As promised, he fought.

He did not take morphine. He wanted to keep his mind clear. For the pain, he listened to Bach’s fugues. He’d lie in our sitting room, in front of the fireplace. Now and then he drew his breath in sharply through his teeth. I sat behind the door, where he couldn’t see me, guarding him, hoping that the severity of the beat would catch and control the pain.

When Dad banged his fist against the mantel and the music suddenly stopped, I knew Bach had lost, and I would jump up and flee from his approaching footsteps, because he was supposed to be doing “positive thinking,” as the doctors called it, and I was afraid of ruining that with my tears.

Off I’d run in my socks, through the kitchen, up the stairs into my bedroom, and into the closet, with coats half stuffed into my mouth, so that no noise would get out. To this day, I don’t know how “positive thinking” works when, scientifically speaking, you have no chance of surviving. I only know how to plead with God on my knees, and how to invest everything you have in your belief. Everything. That’s what my siblings and I did as we secretly prayed for our father in the attic. “Please perform a miracle. Please don’t let Dad die.”

Dad asked us one day what sort of secrets we were up to in the attic, and we bashfully explained. He only uttered one word – “You” – and then pulled the three of us into his arms at the same time and kissed us on our heads and wouldn’t let us go.

When he embarked on a final big round of therapy in the Black Forest, my brother and I transferred to a boarding school near the clinic, and Mom moved into the hospital with Dad. My sister fought her way through high school alone at home.

There was no campfire, no imaginary armor, and we didn’t have any sticks to hit things with. Just words.

In between, Johannes and I met in the halls at our new school. “We have to pray again,” I’d sometimes tell him, when bad updates reached us. He’d look at me with his big anxious eyes. Sometimes it seemed as if there was an entire black lake behind them. Then we’d look for an empty classroom and enter into the darkness together with our prayers, just like when we were children and played adventure games. Except that we weren’t looking for adventure, and didn’t know the darkness, and couldn’t make up an enemy. After all, there was no campfire, no imaginary armor, and we didn’t have any sticks to hit things with. Just words. His voice, my voice, and around us, desks and chairs. A table lamp gleamed, a bird chirped softly outdoors, a bell tinkled, and everything remained harmless, in the friendly, warm, light-toned wooden ambience of the school’s common rooms. All this, while in fact there was a war going on.

Suddenly we belonged to the misery of the world. Images of weeping mothers, distraught, panicking children, emaciated refugees – suddenly we had images like these right around us. In the faces of people we loved. In civilized, orderly German rooms, with clean clothes. In Dad – his big teeth set against his emaciated upper lip, above the collar of his polo shirt. In the trembling white knuckles of my mother as she clung to the sink. In the whimpering and threads of spit that result when people keep talking even though they are crying far too hard to really do so.

All of a sudden you know a form of fear that almost prevents you from answering people when they ask you something as normal as, “How are you?” What are you supposed to say?

One weekend, my brother Johannes and I took the train down to the hospital from our boarding school.

There were flowers on the wheeled table next to Dad’s bed. His aftershave was sitting next to the disinfectant dispenser. A blood-red sunset filled the window, turning broad cloud stripes black in the ruddy glow. Johannes and I took turns sitting by Dad’s bedside with our Latin homework. We held his hand for hours.

In the evening we went back up to the boarding school. As the train roared on, we spoke less and less. Afterwards we drank schnapps, because that made it easier to joke around with our friends.

In winter they told us Dad was going to die. That our family was now accompanying a dying man. My sister tried to make me understand that when I told her about my vacation plans for Easter break, which naturally included Papa.

“Esther,” she said, looking right at me, “Papa is dying!” I wanted to punch her in the face – her mouth and eyes and everything else. But she punched me first, with a sentence that came at me from her throat, past her gums, and between her teeth: “You have to let him go.”

To have said “yes” would have been to acquiesce. And I had to either steel myself against that, or else freak out. Because that’s the greatest insolence, the ugliest thing you can say about a person: He’s dead.

Your eyes open wide: you’ve never seen so little. They’re searching, but there is nothing. You’ve staggered into a whiteout.

After that, I wanted to threaten anyone who claimed that Dad was dying; I wanted to forbid the world from pretending to know anything about him. How could it know anything? What do we know about any human being? How could someone say, “Esther, you have to let him go”? To where? I’m not going to let someone I love turn into nothing. I’m not going to let someone who belongs to me go to their death.

So I snapped at my sister, “You can’t. Dad can’t die. Imagine Mom, if Dad were dead. He can’t die.”

And I began to pray, as I’d once read in the Bible, where it says, “May it be given to you, according to your faith.” I thanked God in advance for healing my father. I invested all the faith I could muster. I surrendered my world to him.

Six months later, my father was dead, and when I saw him lying there in the hospital bed, I just about brought the walls down with my screaming. I was so close to going mad, I all but clawed the skin off my face.

After that I fell silent.

The whole world was silent. Dead, silent, and cold, as if snow had fallen. Without God. Without me. And devoid of any stimuli.

I don’t know how it is for others who have experienced the death of someone they love, but the sight of my dead father almost robbed me of my sanity at the time. It was like I was blinded by seeing him lying there.

I hear a scream. Mine. And then it was like I was running through a collapsing house. The floor crumbles into nothingness beneath your heels. You have to run faster and faster, breaking the doors down. Not to get out, but to get to the core of the house, to the single, hard, everlasting atom that you might be able to grasp hold of and save yourself with.

You strain every muscle to kick down the next door, and – it’s gone. Someone has taken it off its hinges. Or there never was a door. Your feet fly into nothingness, and the back of your neck tingles. Your eyes open wide: you’ve never seen so little. They’re searching, but there is nothing. You’ve staggered into a whiteout.

And yet, this is not death. Not the final collapse. You’ll still be able to hold a coffee cup afterward, though it’s no longer worth it. Again, this is not death. We surviving family members – we may still have years in front of us. We still hear ticking clocks and cars driving by. We hear songs playing in the supermarket, just like they did in the old world, before, and we grasp our shopping carts and keep moving, even if in a daze. That daze: we still have to brush our teeth, though as we taste the toothpaste in our mouths, we may wonder what for. Not that this wondering accomplishes much – whether about the objects that fill the house, which suddenly seem so strange, or all the things you do and say. So you go on washing your hair, and your hands basically know how to do it, and you let them do it. True, there are sometimes lapses. You don’t really know what to do next, and suddenly you’re sitting on the stairs, and you’ve forgotten why.

At other times, the world no longer makes any noises. There are no more sounds, no more harmonies, no more logical tonal sequences by which you might find your way.

This happens every day, all over the globe, in every country. Again and again, the world collapses for someone without the rest of us hearing it. We only see it: the mute face; the pale, cloying look of a mourner who no longer puts on her makeup properly. The overgrown front garden, the withered plants, and the overturned watering can that lies there abandoned for weeks. That’s what people notice and talk about and look at with concern.

I was seventeen when my father died, but I felt like a little memento mori. Needy, but also disfigured in an off-putting way. Shortly after the funeral, when the anger came, I broke with God. It happened in a church at a wedding, as the bride was being led down the aisle by her father. I told God, “You are dead. I don’t believe in you anymore.” And before long, I really didn’t believe in him anymore.

My brother stayed at boarding school; my sister went off to study. I moved back home. We took in my grandmother and cared for her. My mother knew nothing about our financial situation. It was Dad who had run the company. Mom had always been a housewife and a mother to us children. In my memory, she spent the first year after his death buried under a pile of files, dead tired, asking question after question.

In the fall and winter after his death, she didn’t even heat the house, for fear that we’d run out of money and might have to cut other corners. And so it was freezing cold in the big house, and dark. We only left the lights on if someone was still in the room.

At the beginning, Mom still cooked for five people by accident, and I remember feeling embarrassed as I looked at the five portions of fish on the dinner table, and noticed she was looking at them too. She’d sit down with a sigh, fold her hands, close her eyes for a moment, but then wouldn’t pray after all. Instead, she’d pull Grandma’s wheelchair closer to the table, tuck the napkin into her collar, and begin to feed her.

When Grandma wouldn’t eat, or began to cough after each sip, or when, because the fork was close to her mouth, she got irritated and tried to shoo it away like a fly, Mom sometimes lost her patience. Then she’d slam down the fork on the plate and groan, “Your turn, Esther. I can’t.” So I’d silently start de-boning the fish, and mashing the potatoes for Grandma. When I looked at Mom, I’d see she was crying. Then I’d put Grandma’s fork down again, walk around the wheelchair, sit down next to Mom, and give her a hug. I’d say “Mom” and hold her for a moment. But then I’d realize that my hug couldn’t give her any of that comfort and protection and reassurance that everything would be okay. Only Dad’s arms could do that. I had no comfort to offer, nor any protection.

Mom’s grief battered us together. Not that she cried very often – but you can tell when someone is struggling or screaming inside. We kids started buying her extravagant gifts. We scraped together our pocket money and bought her opera tickets, and red roses, just like Dad would have.

Women would sometimes say, “You and your mother – you can’t keep suppressing your pain. You have to let it out.” As far as I was concerned, the people who said things like that didn’t know what they were talking about.

First of all, there was no pain. Only death. Death is very severe. It takes away the surfaces to which things normally stick. It’s as if every line you try to write on the blackboard doesn’t work – the chalk just clacks, as if you’re writing on glass. Every stroke – every arc, whether dreamy or precise and concentrated – slips. You’re suddenly incapable and stupid.

Before, I hadn’t known what a power death has, or what horror it holds – how strongly it contradicts life. After, I’d have to touch my hand to my mouth at times, just to make sure it hadn’t fallen asleep. It was hard to get up; it was hard to watch a movie. I basically stopped going out with friends. We no longer had anything in common.

There is no hope without God. I looked for it for four years. It doesn’t exist.

Every now and then I’d try to go to a party. I’d gloss my lips and brush my hair and put on my platform heels and a squirt of the last bottle of perfume Dad had given me – all while knowing that I probably wouldn’t get as far as actually leaving the house. Then I’d sit down at Grandma’s bedside and stroke her forehead, knowing that all I had to do was put on my coat and go. But that last step out the door … There wasn’t even a real threshold: just a little crack, between the door and the mat. But crossing it was too much. Why? Because I couldn’t. Mom would say, “I thought you were going out.”

“But I can’t!” I’d yell. It was as if some unwritten law – It won’t work – lurked behind every mental decision, even if it was only the impulse to get up in the morning. You become like the ox of futility, biding your time, and grinding and chewing the hours away. With every second, you move closer to nothingness. And if this sounds too hopeless to you – well, there is no hope without God. I looked for it for four years. It doesn’t exist.

Back then, I was so pissed off by adults who thought they were too scientific to believe in God, but still quoted The Little Prince – those comforting words about a dead person now being a star who looks down on us from above.

And I wasn’t helped by the bullshit about how that person “lives on in our hearts,” because it’s not true. There are memories, but they eventually fade, with no new ones to replace them. At some point you know them all, and some of them make you sick, and even turn your heart into a prison. Welcome to my heart – it’s fucking cramped in here! And those old home videos that you watch every evening? You know how the image becomes shaky, just at the point where the deceased is laughing and waving at the camera? I’d think: well, why not dare to say that he’s gone for good, and that in a few years no one will remember him anymore – not you, nor me? Because that’s what we actually know will happen.

I quit going to school; I just loitered in the woods. I’d hike up to an old tower above town and sit there, smoking for hours, dissipating into senselessness. My name? I didn’t have one anymore.

I remember the sound of the train wafting up to me as it tooted its warning signal at each railroad crossing. I remember getting drunk. Very drunk – several times until I blacked out. Waking up in a park because a dog was sniffing at my legs. Or waking up in bed, with my boots still on.

I had to see a psychologist. Not that it helped. My problem was not only grief. Since turning my back on God, I felt my life was a meaningless coincidence. And since it was already meaningless, why endure suffering? Questions like this cannot be answered by therapy. They can only be suppressed with medications, pushed off, if you’re lucky, until you find yourself lying in bed in an old people’s home someday, staring at a wall all day long, which is what I was already doing.

I suppose the death of a person you love always presents such questions. About meaning. About hope. As I said, I haven’t found hope without God, and I have no missionary intentions in stating that. If anything, it probably sounds needy to say that. But is that so bad? We humans are needy. Helpless. Little. And particularly vulnerable when we love. Because loving never just stops after the person you love is dead. Even if it seems, at a first glance, that your love has lost its object. Even if you sob every morning and seem inconsolable. Love does not die.

There’s something strange about that, and not just in a needy way, but in a beautiful way too. In a way that lets you wonder. I don’t know if it was up at the tower in the woods, or at my grandmother’s bedside, but I suddenly found this love more amazing than cancer. More sovereign, even if it made me go weak. Even if it was love that made me suffer so much. There was something great about it – foreign – unmanipulable.

This strangeness of love began to fascinate me. I was given a new apprehension of God. Of his strangeness. And it changed everything.

Don’t worry: this piece is not going to end with, “And then I let go of my evil hatred, stopped smoking, and started going to church every day.” It wasn’t like that.

But I did turn back to God. And shortly afterward, my younger brother Johannes was diagnosed with cancer. He was only twenty-three. It was a malignant melanoma. Very small, but very nasty. He died of it, ten months later. I can’t really say who died, and who he was to me. I might be able to find words for the horror, but not for my brother.

And yet, I can say this: his faith in God was so great that it carried us all with him. He was not afraid. There was a peace in his prayers that I don’t understand. Comfort. It was like the love I had and still have for him and for my father. A love that won’t let me go, and won’t die, and seems as otherworldly as what I’ve written here.

The German original of this article was published in Spiegel Wissen, March 2014. Translated by Chris Zimmerman.