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Jeff Zaslow’s tragic passing sends shockwaves to those who loved him

Pall bearers for best-selling author Jeffrey Zaslow West Bloomfield lead processiout with his casket following funeral service CongregatiShaarey Zedek Bell

Pall bearers for best-selling author Jeffrey Zaslow of West Bloomfield lead the procession out with his casket following a funeral service a Congregation Shaarey Zedek on Bell Road in Southfield, Mich., Monday, Feb. 13, 2012. Zaslow was killed last week when he lost control of his car on a snowy northern Michigan road. (AP Photo/Detroit Free Press, Regina H. Boone)

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Updated: March 16, 2012 8:17AM

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a list of numbered propositions, each leading to the next. Number 6.4311 begins, “Death is not an event in life. Death is not lived through.”

For the person who has died, that is. That person is whisked away to whatever reward or void awaits us after death.

It is those of us who have not yet died who live through death, big time, who must cope with it, particularly accidental death, which radiates outward, sending shockwaves, first to those at the scene, stunned to find death intruding onto an ordinary day. Then to the officialdom who must deal with death regularly and handle the particulars. Then exploding into the lives of family, who suffer the most and, finally, the thunderclap reaches the outer world, where people hear it and look up, moved to the degree they knew the deceased.

Jeff Zaslow died in a car accident Friday, as you’ve probably heard. Longtime Sun-Times readers will fondly recall his thoughtful, human and funny advice column that ran from 1987 until 2001, or his best-selling books such as The Last Lecture.

I don’t do grief well — I’m self-centered and over-analytical, a bad mix — and no sooner feel loss then immediately start questioning it, to see if it’s legitimate. Jeff’s death came as a sickening shock, yet I instantly pulled back, certain that I occupy too distant an orbit among his concentric circles of friends to be entitled to feel awful, which is reserved for his wife and daughters and family, the true epicenter of suffering. Any hurt I feel must be ersatz, overdramatic.

No matter how I tried to focus my thoughts on others — Jeff’s genius, the key to his life: he was a big-hearted, generous man, a true friend — I kept returning to my own experiences with him. Memories bubbled up, random stuff, as if my brain were venting everything it knew about Jeff Zaslow, from the fact that at birth, he was delivered by Dr. C. Everett Koop, the future Surgeon General, to his sister’s hand-made picture frames, to his love of Bruce Springsteen — we once went to a concert together — to the day, almost 25 years ago, Jeff was being given his welcoming tour of the Sun-Times newsroom and I hurried over, curious to discover just what kind of idiot leaves a job writing front page stories for the Wall Street Journal to advise women how to get stains out of a broadloom rug on page 27 of the Sun-Times.

If a Russian novelist tried to create two separate characters to split the spectrum of qualities a writer can possess, he might cook up Jeff — happy, concerned for others, frenetic, sincere — and me: melancholy, self-absorbed, shambling, sarcastic.

Jeff wanted to help everybody. He held those enormous Zazz Bashes at Navy Pier because he got so many letters from lonely people, and wanted to fix them up with each other, to give each one a shot at the joy he found with his own wife, Sherry.

I thought he was crazy. “Jeff,” I’d say, “You’re not a social service.”

When I got the awful news — we have the same literary agency — I dutifully phoned it into the newspaper. “Do you want to write something?” an editor asked. I said “No.” The planet of my ego is such — think Jupiter — I knew it would be impossible to launch a tribute to Jeff without having it circle back and crash into myself.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” is the final line of Wittgenstein’s book. Good advice. I wanted to honor Jeff by shutting up, an underappreciated art form.

But silence felt even worse. We Jews bury our own, and standing at Jeff’s graveside, mutely waiting for my turn with the shovel, I stared at my shoes and tried to block out the sound of his daughters weeping. “This is the worst thing in the world,” I thought. “I hate this I hate this I hate this.”

Silence has no utility, it isn’t a sharp enough blade to scrape at the icy loss that Jeff’s death frosts over the world. I wish I could wrap this up tidily, with an inspiring thought that counterbalances the tragedy in the world and leaves you with a smile. Jeff was so good at that. Alas, he is not here, a hard fact that touches on the often cruel nature of life, one that we lucky enough to have known Jeff will struggle with for a long time.

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