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Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer

Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer

Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer

4/5 (34 ratings)
105 pages
1 hour
Apr 28, 2015


As the obituary writer in a spectacularly beautiful but often dangerous spit of land in Alaska, Heather Lende knows something about last words and lives well lived. Now she’s distilled what she’s learned about how to live a more exhilarating and meaningful life into three words: find the good. It’s that simple--and that hard.

Quirky and profound, individual and universal, Find the Good offers up short chapters that help us unlearn the habit--and it is a habit--of seeing only the negatives. Lende reminds us that we can choose to see any event--starting a new job or being laid off from an old one, getting married or getting divorced--as an opportunity to find the good. As she says, “We are all writing our own obituary every day by how we live. The best news is that there’s still time for additions and revisions before it goes to press.”

Ever since Algonquin published her first book, the New York Times bestseller If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, Heather Lende has been praised for her storytelling talent and her plainspoken wisdom. The Los Angeles Times called her “part Annie Dillard, part Anne Lamott,” and that comparison has never been more apt as she gives us a fresh, positive perspective from which to view our relationships, our obligations, our priorities, our community, and our world.

An antidote to the cynicism and self-centeredness that we are bombarded with every day in the news, in our politics, and even at times in ourselves, Find the Good helps us rediscover what’s right with the world.

“Heather Lende’s small town is populated with big hearts--she finds them  on the beach, walking her granddaughters, in the stories of ordinary peoples’ lives, and knits them into unforgettable tales. Find the Good is a treasure.” —Jo-Ann Mapson, author of Owen’s Daughter

Find the Good is excellent company in unsteady times . . . Heather Lende is the kind of person you want to sit across the kitchen table from on a rainy afternoon with a bottomless cup of tea. When things go wrong, when things go right, her quiet, commonsense wisdom, self-examining frankness, and good-natured humor offer a chance to reset, renew, rebalance.”  —Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted

“With gentle humor and empathy [Lende] introduces a number of people who provide examples of how to live well . . . [Find the Good] is simple yet profound.”  Booklist

“In this cynical world, Find the Good is a tonic, a literary wellspring, which will continue to run, and nurture, even in times of drought. What a brave and beautiful thing Heather Lende has made with this book.” —John Straley, Shamus Award winner and former writer laureate of Alaska

“Heather Lende is a terrific writer and terrific company: intimate, authentic, and as quirky as any of her subjects.” —Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat
Apr 28, 2015

About the author

Heather Lende has contributed essays and commentary to NPR, the New York Times, and National Geographic Traveler, among other newspapers and magazines, and is a former contributing editor at Woman’s Day. A columnist for the Alaska Dispatch News, she is the obituary writer for the Chilkat Valley News in Haines and the recipient of the Suzan Nightingale McKay Best Columnist Award from the Alaska Press Club. Her previous bestselling books are Find the Good, Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs, and If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name. Lende was voted Citizen of the Year, Haines Chamber of Commerce, in 2004. Her website is

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Find the Good - Heather Lende


The Good News

Recently, I was asked to write a short essay describing one piece of wisdom to live by. I thought about it but did not have a brief, easy answer. I have made enough mistakes in my life to fill a whole bookshelf of dos and don’ts. My friend John works as an investigator in the public defender’s office but is a poet. That is probably why he managed to distill all his fatherly hopes and dreams into two rules for his only child: Be nice to the dog and don’t do meth. His son turned out kind, clear-eyed, and he graduated from a good college.

I didn’t have such pithy haiku wisdom at the ready. As an obituary writer, I lean toward elegiac couplets, and I have five children, which also adds a lot more variables. One size won’t fit all of them. I took another tack. I pretended I was on my deathbed. (I’m fifty-four, have survived being run over by a truck, and I had a headache, which I worried might be a brain tumor, so this was not such a big leap.) I imagined I’d already said good-bye to my husband, children, grandchildren, and all the great-grandchildren I hadn’t even met yet. If indeed all the wisdom I had in my heart was to be summed up in final words and it was difficult to speak more than, say, three, what would I rasp before my soul flew up the chimney?

Find the good.

I surprised myself with this pretty great notion.

Find the good. That’s enough. That’s plenty. I could leave my family with that.

MY BEAT AT OUR LOCAL newspaper is death, which is why I was asked to contribute the essay in the first place. Since I have written obituaries in Haines, Alaska (pop. about 2,000), the town where I live, for almost twenty years, the journal’s editor assumed that I must know something about last words and good lives. (After all, it is wrong to speak ill of the dead.) Turns out that I do. It just took me a while to believe it, and even longer to say it out loud.

Writing obituaries is my way of transcending bad news. It has taught me the value of intentionally trying to find the good in people and situations, and that practice—and I do believe that finding the good can be practiced—has made my life more meaningful. I begin each obituary with a phone conversation, followed by a visit. For reasons I’m not sure of, but that one priest told me may be my calling, I am able to enter a grieving household, pull up a chair, sip some coffee, observe, listen, ask questions that (I hope) will ease the pain, take notes, and recognize the authentic lines when I hear them. Finding the good in this situation is often challenging; it is not always obvious. If I concentrate and am patient, though, it will reveal itself. This usually involves a lot of caffeine.

After an elder who has been housebound and incapacitated by a stroke for twenty-five years dies, I find time to sit on the sofa and look through family albums with his widow and admire how handsome he was in his World War II uniform and how happy they both looked on that beach vacation the year before he was stricken.

When twelve-year-old twins lose their mother to cancer, I will quote their father praising them and tell how he plans to take them on a family drive across the country to see their grandparents.

And perhaps hardest of all, on the snowy winter morning when I meet with the parents and siblings of a young man who drank too much one night and shot himself, I write down how very much he had loved to swim in the lake in front of their summer cabin.

I understand why you may think that what I do is depressing, but compared to front-page news, most obituaries are downright inspirational. People lead all kinds of interesting and fulfilling lives, but they all end. My task is investigating the deeds, characteristics, occupations, and commitments, all that he or she made of their one wild and precious life, as poet Mary Oliver has called it. He may have died mumbling and confused in a nursing home, but in his day he was a fine actor, dashing host, and bon vivant you would have loved playing charades with. She was a terrific big sister, the daughter who always baked cookies for her dad, and had planned on attending an art college before she was killed in a car wreck. No one wants the last hour of her life to eclipse the seventeen years before it.

This may not be how the obituary writers at national newspapers work, but I’m dealing with people I know—my neighbors in the small, close-knit community where my husband owns a lumberyard, where we’ve raised our family, where I’ve sat on the school board, volunteer for hospice, and am a regular at the Morning Muscles exercise class. These relationships alter the way I write. Before I compose an obituary, I ask myself what truths will outlive the facts of this person’s life, what needs to be in it but also what doesn’t.

Tom Morphet, my editor at the Chilkat Valley News, often disagrees with my choices and asks me to dig a little deeper into the more difficult times in a person’s life. He warns me against habitually walking on the sunny side of the street.

Still, I leaned close to the radio recently when I heard a story about a study that proved optimistic women live longer. I called Tom right up with the great news.

At least you believe you will, he replied.

Tom and I were both pleased with the way the obituary of an old miner unfolded. His widow and daughters wanted to be sure I included the bad with the good. Rather than detour around his sinkholes, they told me to note that he had been a hard-drinking, hard-living, and some would even say hard-hearted, man who was transformed by a voice he heard in a blizzard while driving through a mountain pass, telling him to change his ways. He did, becoming a sober, tender, nursery-rhyme singer as soon as his first grandbaby gripped his finger. He taught all his grandchildren to sing along when he played the guitar. If grandchildren can help an old miner find the Lord on his rough road to Damascus, what am I going to discover thanks to mine?

I think about children first when bad things happen. How can we reaffirm that there’s so much to applaud, even if they see nothing worthy of an ovation? And then I know. Whenever there is a tragedy, from the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, to when a fisherman dies after slipping off the deck here in Haines, awful events are followed by dozens and dozens of good deeds. It’s not that misery loves company, exactly; rather, it’s that suffering, in all its forms, and our response to it, binds us together across dinner tables, neighborhoods, towns and cities, and even time. Bad doings bring out the best in

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What people think about Find the Good

34 ratings / 12 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (3/5)
    This was okay. Glad it was less than 3 hours. I could knock it out quickly at work.
  • (4/5)
    "Find The Good" is a very profound, interesting book. I enjoyed it very much and recommend it highly.
  • (4/5)
    Having grown up in a small town (albeit Minnesota rather than Alaska), I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the many characters. There are a lot of insights on life that any reader should appreciate. I highly recommend it.
  • (4/5)
    But sweet and short, but much less poignant and stirring than I'd expected.
  • (4/5)
    A small town Alaska obituary writer shares what she has learned about life and death.
  • (4/5)
    It's so easy to focus on the negative. I can stew for a long time about someone cutting me off in traffic. I walk off the tennis court replaying my errors. I let unkind comments fester. And I know I'm not alone in this. But what if we chose to focus on happiness and the gifts that everyone in our lives brings to the table instead of dwelling on the negative? What if, as the title of Heather Lende's lovely new book suggests, we Find the Good? It won't change my traffic situation or improve my tennis game, but it sure might make me a more positive, contented person.Life is lived in the dash between the dates on our headstone and until that last date is engraved, we can always change the story in between. Lende is the obituary writer in her small Alaskan fishing village. Often she knows the people she's writing about very well so it's heartbreakingly easy for her to find the good in someone's life as she goes about the business of distilling a life to the space allotted in the paper. Each short chapter is packed with wisdom gleaned from the life of someone who has died. And the brief slice of their life that Lende captures is wonderful, giving a real sense of the person. There is humor here and there are unexpected revelations. Lende shares a bit of her own family's challenges and the life-affirming way that she decided to face them. And as she does, she reminds us all that how we face each thing in our life is in fact a decision. We can dwell or we can celebrate and celebrating is infinitely more fun. It is a quick and welcoming read, one that is easy to dip in and out of when you need to be reminded about all the positives in life thanks to its vignette style essays. Heartwarming, simple, and direct, this is a gorgeous little book with a beautiful message that will leave you smiling as you close the cover. If you're looking for the good, you'll certainly find a lot of it here.