Love, loss, heartbreak: it’s the theme embedded in so many memorable works of art. It’s the story that most often appears in the work of my students, and it’s one I return to again and again in my own writing and reading.
Whether we’re novices or experienced writers, when it comes to confronting grief we all start from the same place: something nearly killed us, literally or figuratively, but we survived. In the course of writing about it, maybe we’ll discover, understand, relate exactly how.
I’ve long thought of writing as a calling, but only recently began to think of loss stories as a call.
I came across this idea in Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks. There’s a key moment when memoirist Andre Dubus III encourages Brooks to write about the loss of her father:
“It’s your time to go back. And don’t feel like you need to apologize for taking the time. You are being called, I would submit to you, by the younger Melanie, by the girl Melanie, by the young woman Melanie.”
When I decided to write about the loss of a close friend in my teens, I also felt I was answering a call. It was a conscious decision to finally say yes to examining what happened. To let this story take up the room in my life it needed to, for however long it took to finish writing it. And to not turn my back on the younger “me” this time, which was how I’d always coped with grief—disassociating, so that it couldn’t touch me.
The hardest part of answering the call meant being present in my body when my heart, my whole body, ached—there were no shortcuts. No more trying to dodge the pain or minimizing the impact this loss had on me and my life.
I knew if I couldn’t feel anything, the story would be a flat re-telling. My readers wouldn’t feel anything either.
If you feel the pull to shape your story of loss into an artful narrative, before you heed the call a humble warning: the process may split you in two, but in the end the writing may also help you become whole again.
You will need to take on the dual role of survivor and witness as you write, traveling back in time so you can sit with the loss again and carefully observe what happened.
But not just what happened, as Andre Dubus III quips in Writing Hard Stories, but what the hell happened—because a story isn’t a re-telling of chronological events. It is the writer’s work to also convey its greater meaning and impact.
You will walk in two worlds, your head and heart divided between now and the past, for the duration of your writing project.
And you might split in two again as you grieve the life not lived, that other possible reality unrealized. The other “you” you might have been if things had been different.
It is brave heart work, but is there any other way through? In a sense, until we can look directly at what the hell happened it is still the hell happening – just in hidden, sometimes self-destructive ways.
The reward of grief, which may also be the gift of writing, is that it holds the power to bring together again the fragmented self into something new if we can stay with it.
Many—perhaps most—of the writers I meet through my teaching want to write about grief but they struggle. They know the high emotional stakes. The fear of re-triggering past grief is strong. As a result they both do and don’t want to write it.
If they start, they sometimes find themselves overwhelmed. Stuck.
Start small and focused I tell them. A vignette. A prose poem. A flash piece no more than 100 words.
It’s often quite breathtaking what can be conveyed in so few words; many times it’s the most compact stories that have the most memorable impact.
Take this Twitter essay by Rachel Thompson of LitMagLove—an exercise from a webinar we collaborated on about writing our personal trauma and loss stories:
One year, I fell in love, fell pregnant, then fell apart when the doctor lost my baby’s heartbeat in the delivery room.
I wrote an entire chapbook about the loss of my friend, but started with just one poem—a set of survival instructions:
Tell the story again and again. Until you can say severed aorta and feel nothing.
Resent the spring and its long run of sunny days and swallow songs. For daring to exist. For being completely incongruous with how you feel.
In Shelagh O’Neill’s stunning lyrical essay, “Bleeding Sorrow”, the phrase “bloody sorrow” takes on greater significance each time it’s repeated until the piece reaches its culminating life-changing loss:
“After my mother passed away, bloody sorrow followed me around like a faded stain in my favorite underwear. This was my life, still fairly new, and I would have to wear it.”
O’Neill’s essay spans several decades in just under 1600 words, bookended by the lyrics of a Moody Blues song. She circles through her family’s private sorrows, her loss of girlhood, the death of close family members, and her mother’s death to cancer, pulling us in close, then gently letting us go.
“Excavating memories is hard work,” Shelagh tells me, “and it can bring heartache at the very least. But, it can also bring joy through that excavation. As Martin Luther King Jr. said: Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”
If you start small, with a Twitter essay, what difficult story could you write?
What instructions would you include in a short piece on how you survived your loss?
What shape might your writing take if, like Shelagh O’Neill, you wrote about your cumulative losses, structured around one significant image, symbol, or phrase?
How did you do it? is a question I often want to ask my students after reading their stories of personal tragedy, knowing there are as many answers as there are writers.
Unlike some writers who find themselves stuck trying to write through their losses, Danica Longair was fueled by the desire to write.
“In the months after I lost my daughter in the second trimester of pregnancy I wrote and wrote and wrote. I ended up with over 11,000 words on the experience. I realized that if my response to the worst day of my life was to write, I guess I am a writer.”
In addition to solidifying her writerly identity, writing about her traumatic losses also helped Danica “detach from the events and look at them from a more technical point of view”.
One of the CNF forms I introduce my students to is the hermit crab essay—an ideal form for raw, vulnerable stories. Danica’s piece about losing her mother-in-law in the form of an Amazon review for cancer is one of the most creative and powerful hermit crab essays I’ve read.
“So much writing about cancer is formal,” she says. “The hermit crab essay gave me permission to get a little pissed off and express the real emotions I had towards the illness that took my mother-in-law from us.”
Shirley Harshenin’s, Letters from My Brothers, is a story of horrific abuse and family estrangement written in epistolary form, forthcoming in Room magazine.
“Writing about my past trauma has been liberating; experimenting with form, exciting; knowing my limits, critical,” Shirley told me. “My essay, Letters from My Brothers allowed me some emotional distance, although I bawled like a baby many times during the process, for their pain and for my own.”
Shirley and I talked about the importance of emotional support when going deep into traumatic memories —“I couldn’t do this alone,” she agrees. “My family, which does not include family of origin, is endlessly supportive”.
We also talked about the need for self-care when writing about trauma, and how she prepares to delve back into her childhood memory bank:
“Always, before immersing myself ‘back there’, I armor up—deep breaths, affirmations, visualize myself in protective white light. I make sure I’m grounded and centered, and only write about the stuff I’ve processed and healed from. I need to be in control of how deep I go, how long I stay there, and when to get the hell out. When I’ve had enough for one session, I do something nice for myself—take a walk, hug myself or a stuffy or both, eat chocolate. Lots of chocolate.”
I’m a strong believer in self-care, and encourage writers to make sure they have the support they need before setting out to write about trauma.
Let your loved ones know what you’re up to.
Check in with a grief professional.
Join a support group.
Keep a processing journal—a place to write freely about the work you’re doing.
Remember you don’t have to write your story right now—or ever if the cost of re-visiting a traumatic story is too much for you.
Breathe deeply. Keep breathing.
- The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning edited by George Bowering and Jean Baird, Random House Canada, 2009.
- Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists who Shaped Art from Trauma by Melanie Brooks, Beacon Press, 2017.