A few months after my mother died, I was on the phone with one of her good friends. We were talking — actually, I was ranting — about how emotionally wrecked I felt sorting through her belongings. I’d already donated Mom’s best clothes to a charity that helps women dress for the workplace, and given many of her books to her local library for their fundraiser. I had carefully selected pieces from her art and jewelry collections to give to her closest friends. But what should I do with the minutiae of her life so sentimental to me? I didn’t want to toss her wonderfully detailed appointment books, the programs from museums and concerts, or the family correspondences dating back a generation.
“Things are just things,” my mom’s friend reminded me. “Evaluate them one at a time, and they won’t overwhelm you.” Her advice reminded me of what I already knew so well about writing through grief — a subject so emotionally unwieldy that there seems to be no comfortable way in.
The story of a loss can be hard to explain, and harder to describe on paper. I know this first-hand: I’ve written a memoir about surviving my two younger sisters’ illnesses and subsequent deaths, and a forthcoming writers’ guide, “Braving The Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss.” Like you, I’ve been there, fingers on keyboard with so much to say, but so afraid to start. I’ve learned that for me, the best way to start is to write about the little things that won’t overwhelm me.
Here are five of my top tips to starting small when you’re writing about grief:
1). Pretend You’re Telling a Friend
As you sit down to write, imagine that you’re telling the story of your loss to a dear friend. Write what you’d say just as you’d say it. Don’t edit yourself or try to write formally. Can you explain clearly what happened? If you don’t know, or wish you knew more, what questions would you would ask if you were given the chance?
2). Fidget, and Imagine Your Loved One Doing the Same
Write a description of what you do when you’re sad or happy or uncomfortable. Do you twist a lock of hair? Chew gum? Now write a description of a fidgeting habit of the person you’re grieving. Got that down? Now write a scene in which you or your loved one (or both of you) are in a situation where you’re doing that very thing.
3). Let Music Take You Back
When you think of the person you’ve lost, is there a pop hit, a symphony, a nursery rhyme or even a team fight song that transports you to a time you both enjoyed? Sing a few bars or play the music, and write a scene that takes place when you were both listening to that music. (Quoting lyrics in a published piece can incur costs, so use the song only as a writing prompt.) The same goes for sound as a whole. Maybe a regional accent, a non-English word, or even a joke brings that person back to you.
4). Pack a Lunch
Brown bag it and spend the day at a location meaningful to your story. Bring a notebook with your sandwich, and write down your observations as well as how you feel. What do you notice when you’re face-to-face with that hospital lobby, the courthouse steps, or your grandparents’ old house? What color is the paint? Has that apple tree been cut down or grown unruly? Make a side-by-side list comparing what you see now with what you remember. These can be the building blocks for scenes.
5.) Make Decisions Later
Don’t worry right now about what will make it into your final story, essay or book. Write ideas and images as they come to you. Trust that as you develop your writer’s voice your story will take shape. The scenes and memories that mean the most to you will emerge.
Bringing clearly rendered, concrete details to your writing can shape your story of what happened, and who you have become in its aftermath. And it’s those details that help carry that heavy load. It’s advice I’ll turn to again as I slip into a soft brown winter coat that I’ve decided to keep. My mom wore that coat, and I am strong enough to let it warm me as winter comes.
Jessica Handler is the author of the forthcoming “Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief.” Her first book, “Invisible Sisters: A Memoir,” was named one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read” by the Georgia Center for the Book. Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post and More.
Co-authored by Jody Porowski, CEO of Avelist
Whenever I mention that my best friend died 10 years ago, I feel the tone of the room change. I can tell that the person I'm talking with wants to ask questions, but really doesn't know what to say. So to start off, I'll tell you the story. I'll tell you who he was and how he died, because I know you want to know.
His name was Blayne. We were about 19 years old. We'd become best friends in high school, even dated for a little bit. When we left for college we stayed in touch. I loved him. Not in an I-want-to-marry-him kind of way, but in an I-want-to-know-him-forever kind of way. I thought we'd marry other people. I thought he'd be like an uncle to my kids. My point is that I loved him dearly, like a brother. We fought like siblings too, to be honest -- with each other and for each other.
Blayne was driving back to North Carolina from his college in South Carolina. It was during the day, no drinking involved. The car in front of him slammed on breaks, Blayne couldn't react in time, and the car flipped. He was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. I'll never forget the phone call.
The months that followed were full of very sharp and very deep grief. I remember the blur very well. The visitation, the funeral, the candlelight vigil on the baseball field. Explaining the situation to my professors, moving my exams around. Trying not to cry until class was over and I could make it to the bathroom or a park bench. Day after day. No appetite. Sleepless nights and midnight runs. It was a hard time.
Of course as time goes on, life moves forward. You never forget. And you'll never be the same. How could you be? There are some things in life that are so big and so profound that we can't experience them without being changed. Here are some of the lessons I've learned and the ways I've changed:
First, I learned that grief is an overwhelming emotion. When I lost Blayne, it was the first time in my life that I experienced raw, harsh grief. I guess that makes me lucky, that it took 19 years. I was amazed at how long grief lasted, and how many stages of grief there actually were. Sadness, uncontrollable tears, irritability, a need to be with people, a need to be a alone, courage to keep going, and humor to cope.
I also learned that when someone tells you about their pain, they want to talk about it. Often people don't know what to say when they're talking to someone who is dealing with grief or tragedy. Most of the time we feel like we don't have the right words, like we don't want to offend. But in grieving myself, I realized a little secret, one that is probably not universally true, but that probably is correct about 95 percent of the time. I learned that if people bring up their own tragic situation, this means that they want to talk about it. Because they could easily refrain from bringing it up, but they didn't. Don't be scared to embark on that journey with them.
This too shall pass. Robert Frost once said, "In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on." It's crazy how true this is. We live in a world full of 24-hour days -- and whether we spend a day in bed crying or out and about in the big, bustling world -- the next 24-hour cycle always comes. The sun rises and it sets and it rises again. Life goes on. This doesn't mean we forget the past, but it does mean that the past is not all we have.
Life is precious. It's true that, after losing Blayne, I've held my friends, family and loved ones a little closer and a little tighter. I'm more apt to put the work down and have a conversation. I'm more likely to pick up a phone call instead of letting it go to voicemail. And I have a deeper understanding that each person I come in contact with - every stranger - is someone's loved one. I want to treat them with dignity and respect in the way that I hope strangers treat my loved ones throughout the day.
As much as we treasure life, I've also realized that we are not in control of our lives. Goals are important. Hopes and dreams are beautiful. Planning is wise. But no matter how hard we work, there are some things, maybe most things, that are totally out of our control. For the first time in my life, when Blayne died, I realized that some things were impossible. Before that, I felt like there was always a way. If you wanted a new dress, you worked to earn the money for it. If you got in a fight with a friend, you made an effort to better communicate. If you wanted a certain job, you went out and pursued it. Suddenly when Blayne died I realized that, no matter what I did, I could not bring Blayne back. I was helpless. And to me, that was profound.
Tangible memories are gold. One night, several months after Blayne died, I found a three page letter that he had written me. I cried so hard. I was so thankful. You see, I hadn't gotten to say goodbye. The last chance I had to talk with him, I hadn't picked up the phone. I had also ignored the instant message. I was busy. I'd see him soon. At least that's what I thought. This letter I found was like a goodbye. He told me the ways that he loved me. He talked about our life-long friendship. He thought I was talented and special and that my future held great things. Now, more than ever, I cherish pictures and the written word.
Friendship is eternal. When Blayne died, I didn't lose a friend, I just had to say goodbye. I had to shift to a state of missing him forever, because our active conversations were over, and I knew this. But the friendship remained. It never ended. Today I love him. I speak well of him. I care for those who he loved, stay in touch with his family, live in such a way that I know would make him proud. And when I think about him, conversations that we had when he was alive, things that he told me, secrets that we shared, I am encouraged and inspired and excited about life.
One final thought: I learned that it's important to think about life and death. Psalm 90:12 says "Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." It can be scary to let your mind go there, to realize that your days on earth are limited. I don't particularly love thinking about it. But it's such an important topic. Because when we think about death, we also think about life, and we decide how we want to live. The topic of death causes us to explore our thoughts on religion and an afterlife. It causes us to think about what kind of legacy we want to leave after we're gone. Blayne's death impressed upon me, a then 19-year-old, that I would not live forever. It filled my heart with wisdom. And for that, I am so grateful.
You might also like:
6 Ways to Be Better at Visiting Your Friend in the Hospital
When You Want to Move On, But Can't
5 Things to Do When You Want to Be Alone
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This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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