Good grief: writing to heal from the loss of a loved one

With the new year just around the corner, a lot of my favorite bloggers and writers are reflecting on 2018’s successes, making plans for 2019, and reassuring their fellow writers that it’s okay if they didn’t meet this year’s writing goals.

For many folks, myself included, 2018 wasn’t exactly the best year. Its latter half gifted me with illness, both mental and physical, and immense grief following the death of a man whose existence transcended cliches and descriptions — you just had to know him. I had the good fortune of not just knowing him, but calling him family, and witnessing his talent and kindness firsthand.

Some days, “lost” wasn’t even the word to describe me. It didn’t, and still doesn’t, help that an ocean and a five-hour time difference separates me from my family. At my lowest point, I told my husband I felt “top-heavy”, like the weight in my brain would make me fall over at any moment.

But despite the most painful parts of the grieving process, I’m choosing to follow in my loved one’s Converse-patterned footsteps. As I reflect on 2018 and prepare for 2019, I’m choosing to focus on the good: my passion for writing, which has been my longest and most faithful friend, one that’s healed me time and time again.

Writing can be the best way to honor your loved one’s legacy.

No amount of wishing or bargaining will change the fact that he’s gone, as much as I wish it could. And I know he wouldn’t want me to dwell on his absence anyway. He would want me to get moving — after all, I’ve still got things to see and a life to live! And he’d want me to soak up every moment, just like he did.

Most importantly, he’d want me to spend what little precious time I have doing what I love most, just like he did.

I’ve been a storyteller since I was old enough to talk. My passion for the craft started at the tender age of three, when I performed tall tales of green monsters in the woods with the living room floor as my stage and my mama as the audience.

That passion took me all the way to the big stage of the Theatre Royal this year, where I performed in my first play which I also co-wrote. That passion led me to pursue a Master’s degree and build my dream career as a freelance writer.

And he was proud of me for following that passion, even when people picked on me for it in school, even when society told me I’d never make it as a writer.

So when he got sick and passed away, and when the depression threatened to, quite literally, knock me down, I did what I always do: I wrote.

It wasn’t easy — it never is, not even after years of studying writing and decades of practicing. In fact, writing through my grief was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Even though I knew I had to get it out of my head, I didn’t want to face it.

Writing can be the perfect listener when no one else understands.

On my best days, I struggle to communicate my feelings with those closest to me. So naturally, I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to rehash all the old cliches — he’s so young, it’s not fair, etc. — because saying those things out loud just made me more upset.

My notebook became my best friend during his illness and following his death. It didn’t judge me or tell me how to process or grieve — it just listened.

It was the only place I felt I could be honest, really honest, with no consequences. No smoke and mirrors, no half-assed sympathetic gestures — just a safe place where I could store my anger and my sadness.

And that was what I needed most.

Writing can be the most welcome distraction.

The night we lost him, I didn’t know what to do. I spent the wee hours of the morning in my studio, talking about my short story collection with a close friend who, mercifully, came to my rescue.

And for an hour or two, I was so absorbed in telling them about my project that I didn’t think about it.

Did it change the fact that he was gone? No.

Did it change the fact that, as soon as I stepped out of the gallery, I went back to being an emotional wreck? No.

Did it change the fact that I felt guilty for allowing myself to put it out of my mind, even for just one hour? No.

But it distracted me for one much-needed, much-appreciated hour and kept me from having a full-on mental breakdown alone in my apartment — it kept me safe.

When all else fails, smash some pumpkins.

Here’s one of life’s unfortunate truths: writing doesn’t always help. There were many moments when I couldn’t bear to open my notebook. And if you’re grieving, there will be moments when you can’t stomach it either. And that’s okay.

He passed away the day before Thanksgiving, two days before I hosted my own Thanksgiving for my Irish friends. I almost canceled, but I knew he wouldn’t want me to do that. After all, you can’t just cancel Thanksgiving!

So I resolved to celebrate him instead of grieve for him, for that night, at least — I cooked some of his favorite foods, I wore my Converses (his favorite shoes) in his honor, and I spent time with some of my favorite people.

And after we ate the turkey and washed the dishes, I took a moment to myself, went outside, planted my Converses in the grass, and wept.

And after I’d had my fill of crying and cursing up at the moon, I went back inside, and my friend Anna handed me a baby pumpkin and said, “Let’s go smash this shit.”

And we smashed pumpkins — literally.

If you’re grieving right now and you clicked on this post hoping for some technical advice on writing through the pain, I’m sorry. I can’t give you that.

Grief is not a linear, five-step process. It’s messy. It’s ugly. It’s devastating. Writing won’t help you make sense of it. Writing won’t make it go away. But even if you’re not a writer by trade like me, writing can help patch up your broken heart.

So give yourself some physical space, whether it’s a notebook page or a word document, where you can be honest, where you can say all the things you can’t — or don’t want to — tell your family and friends, your psychiatrist, whoever you usually consult for comfort.

And when you can’t look at your notebook, go smash some pumpkins — either literally or metaphorically. Smashing pumpkins for you might mean playing a video game, escaping into a book, doing some yoga or going for a long walk.

Whatever you do, resolve to take care of yourself. You may have lost someone, but we still need you.

And remember, we’re in this together. Yes, you, me, and all the people and pumpkins in the world.

“‘Cause everybody makes it, not one soul is left out, and that’s what ‘love thy neighbor’s’ all about.” — (A verse from an original song by Bobby Suit, a man whose existence transcended cliches and descriptions — you just had to know him.)

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