The art of grieving

Professor Daniel Perdue died on Nov. 18 from pancreatic cancer.

Esther Nelson
Guest Columnist

My colleague, Daniel E. Perdue, an assistant professor in the Religious Studies Program (Buddhist Studies) died on Nov. 18 and was buried on Nov. 23.  He had been ill for longer than a year, finally succumbing to pancreatic cancer, in spite of radical surgery (Whipple procedure), radiation, chemotherapy, acupuncture, and a host of “natural” remedies.

His death came as no surprise.  Many of us who knew him really expected it to happen all along.  After all, the survival statistics for pancreatic cancer are grim. Yet, when Dan died, the finality of it all caused me to pause.  The loss niggles at me.

For the past five years or so, Dan’s office stood next to the one I share with a mutual colleague. I considered Dan to be my friend, but we were not close. Since he began teaching at VCU, we had always exchanged pleasantries, but during the time he spent as my neighbor, we’d visit in each other’s spaces occasionally. When I visited his space, he always invited me to sit down before bringing out a bowl of candy. “Have some candy,” he’d say with a twinkle in his eye.  I don’t remember ever accepting any candy (too many calories, little nutrition), but he’d offer it anyhow.

Our conversations were eclectic and usually interesting.

What is it that causes people to strongly identify with sports teams? We would speculate, but neither one of us would offer a definitive answer.  Sometimes we’d speak of colleagues having been dealt a “bad hand.” We hoped they’d “find their way” through what no doubt seemed to them like dark times. We’d speak about students we both had taught in our classes. So-and-so is brilliant, don’t you think? And slowly, almost imperceptibly, I found that I looked forward to being offered candy, refusing it, and then getting down to the business of talking, just talking.

Shortly after Dan’s cancer diagnosis (a little over a year before he died), his office door remained shut for months. Then, he returned—a day here and a day there. He met with students, but he also began to clear out his things from his office before going home “to lie down.” Two months before his death, he came back to campus one last time. He lectured to a “standing room only” crowd on “The Wheel of Life.”

Dan and I will no longer be visiting each other’s office space to exchange stories, gossip and the time of day.

His office is now his former office. His name no longer stands in bold letters beside his former door.

The finality of it all!

Several years ago, a fellow professor we both knew died by committing suicide.  After the funeral, we got back to work and “went on with our lives” as people often do nowadays.

From time to time, Dan would bring up this professor’s name. He’d say, “We don’t talk about J very much. I think we need to talk about him more.” And Dan often did do just that — talk about J.

How do you measure a life?  How do you mark its passing? At the very least, we can talk about people who have “gone on.” I miss Dan.

Perhaps by talking about him, we can enter into that space which we don’t inhabit much anymore and recapture what I think is quickly become a lost art — the art of grieving.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct instructor of religious studies at VCU.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply