A Daughter Struggles Through Her Father’s Battle With Cancer

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Title: White Hot Grief Parade: A Memoir

Author: Alexandra Silber

Publisher: Pegasus Books

Publication date: July 2018

Price: $25.95, hardcover; 288 pages


The sudden death of a loved one produces a different type of trauma for family and friends than the protracted fading away of cancer. In sudden death, as in a car crash or with a fatal heart attack, loved ones are pummeled by shock and often left forlorn about the things they did not do or say to the newly deceased. In cancer death, which often unfolds over years, there is time to connect and fill in empty spaces in relationships. But the long, often painful goodbye takes a withering toll on caregivers and loved ones, who become the wounded survivors of cancer. Alexandra Silber deftly illustrates this human outcome in her new book White Hot Grief Parade: A Memoir.

A Dramatic Story

Ms. Silber, a Grammy-nominated actress and singer, tells the sad and gripping story of her beloved father’s cancer diagnosis and the long difficult journey toward death. Her style, which includes original haiku, discussions of her favorite movie (What About Bob?), bits of scripted tête-à-têtes among her and her family members, lovers, and friends; and a host of funny diagrams (which can be a distraction at times). In sum, the book delivers a poignant insight into the ravages of cancer death.

This is a book of raw emotion and candor. It describes what cancer does to those who have loved and lost in a way that stands out from most memoirs.

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As a young child, Ms. Silber becomes aware that her father has cancer, something that was kept from her by him. She was born in California but grew up in Michigan. Along with cancer, the family has plenty of drama to keep the reader engaged. Her lawyer father, Michael, returns from California and joins the family business despite the hostility of his parents and siblings for marrying outside of the Jewish faith. Here, during the family turmoil, Ms. Silber is at her best, describing the life-goes-on struggle of simultaneously dealing with the realities of life (Tupperware parties and overbearing boyfriends) and the heartbreak of chronic disease.

A Young Advocate

Even at the tender age of 10, she is a ferocious advocate for her father and immediately organizes her life around his medical concerns. The narrative tugs at the reader’s heartstrings, as Ms. Silber describes her love for the man she admires as her hero and protector. Her father is a big personality with a big heart. She writes: “Dad started the year with his fifth round of chemotherapy in the span of 9 years. He was in good shape overall. A bald was the only giveaway of his illness. Otherwise, Dad was an ox—6 foot 3 inches of pure Herculean, I-have-cancer-but-remain-symptom-free-for-a-decade type of strength. No one saw the end coming. No one.”

Saying Goodbye

When her father’s death was hours away, Ms. Silber described her last moments with him: “He reached across his body and gripped me tighter with his other hand, until both sets of our hands were knotted together and pulsing. I think he was embarrassed. I think he was sorry. I think he wanted me to know how much he loved me, and I think he wanted me to go.” That simple paragraph beautifully captures the inner thoughts of a dying father saying a dignified goodbye to his daughter.

The reader should not expect a linear narrative, as it travels and explores what happened before, during the cancer journey, and after the death of her father. The funeral is a phantasmagoria of emotional drama and gut-wrenching testimony to what cancer death can do to a family. Also, do not expect clinical details about the cancer and its treatment. This is a book of raw emotion and candor. It describes what cancer does to those who have loved and lost in a way that stands out from most memoirs. For that reason, it is recommended for readers of The ASCO Post. ■