This week’s post is from Susan Robinson, author of Say His Name: A Mother’s Grief and other books.
Of all the life experiences you might write about, grief can be the hardest. It is a black hole, sucking you into despair and oblivion and fogging your thoughts. Revisiting loss can evoke new pain. But writing about your sadness, fear, anger, and confusion brings the emotions into the light and disarms your grief.
Journaling is a great way to begin. Write about each day’s events and how they make you feel. Wax poetic about your loved one and include memories that make you smile. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar or even organization. Just let your thoughts wash onto the page. Although you can type if you prefer, the physical act of letting the emotions flow from your body, down your arm and out through a pen has powerful symbolism. There may be tears, lots of tears, but acknowledging the extreme emotions will diminish their power over you.
If all you ever do is journal, you’ve helped yourself immensely. But if you find that the universal themes in your story could help others navigate their own grief, you may choose to publish. While writing my memoir, Say His Name: A Mother’s Grief, I learned lots of tips on how to go from personal journaling to writing your grief for others:
1: Raw pain vs. perspective
How soon should you discuss your grief? Should you write when your pain is fresh or delay until you’ve lived with it a while? Yes and yes. If you wait to write, you’ll lose the immediacy of early gut reactions and important details will fade. But if you publish too soon, you risk being myopic and forego the wider vision that time affords. Both the rawness of new emotions and analysis of long-term perspective are valid and important, and you can choose which feels right to you. What worked for me was to journal emotions and events in real time and then, later, use time’s gift of overview to weave them into a story that would resonate with readers. For example, I chronicled our hospital vigil early in my grief, then continued to add insights over two decades.
2: No secrets
Grief is intensely personal, and you may feel tempted to protect yourself by whitewashing or leaving out the most intimate details of your pain. Don’t! Reveal every vulnerability, every fear, every failing. The object of writing is to evoke the reader’s emotions—to invite her to walk your path. Sharing intimate thoughts connects us. Think about the unbreakable bond created when you share secrets with your best friend. In my memoir, I included an anecdote in which my son yelled that he hated me, and I yelled back that I hated him too. It was one of my lowest moments as a mother, and my embarrassment almost kept it out of the story. But nearly every reader commented that it was a poignant moment, one they could relate to as imperfect parents. It connected my readers and me and created credibility that carried over to the rest of my story.
Be honest about your loved one too. I did not betray Collin by revealing his foibles and faults—they are what presented him as a real person readers can care about.
3: Laughter doesn’t negate your pain
That said, too much uninterrupted sadness and pain can become overwhelming. Balance the tear-jerking sections with ones that remember good times. Don’t be afraid to use humor—a well-placed satiric comment can defuse a heavy moment. I included some of Collin’s funny antics, like the time he mooned his friends from his window after being sent to his room.
Quotations can also keep your pain from feeling oppressive to the reader. I included observations of loss by C. S. Lewis and Robert Frost, for example. These other perspectives—even if they are talking about their own grief—provide necessary distractions from your own unrelenting narrative.
4: Writing technique matters
As you are writing, keep in mind that although this is your story and you feel possessive toward it, you are also writing for the reader. You must present events, emotions, and thoughts in a way that lets her stand in your shoes and then make the leap to her own grief. The secret is no secret: use good writing techniques. I get as many compliments on my writing as I do on my book’s content. But it’s not about the compliments. It’s that good writing transcends the literal to widen the story and allow the reader to connect her own feelings and experiences. Readers respond to images and metaphors like Collin’s hospital IV stand as a garish Christmas tree and my grief screaming through the corridors like a banshee. Taking a creative writing course (there are plenty online) will show you how to use imagery and metaphor, along with specific sensory details, stories and scenes, and concrete nouns and action verbs. These will bring your writing to life!
5: Let events speak for themselves
You may think that because this is your grief story, it should be all about your feelings and thoughts. Yes, these are important, and I certainly included these in my book. However, feelings and thoughts should be adjuncts to actions and events. Resist the urge to explain everything. Let the actions speak and trust the reader to interpret them. For example, I didn’t need to say I was upset when I broke down in K-Mart over a birthday card. The image of me careening blindly through the store said it all.
Writing about emotions can easily evolve into stream of consciousness, in which you move from idea to idea without any real roadmap. There are authors who can pull this off, but it can be difficult to follow. Your goal is to connect with readers, not to confuse them. Organization is key here. Keep in mind your purpose for writing, and make a distinct, discrete point in each chapter. I recently read a book by a bereaved mother. I cried my way through the first half but then began skipping over sections, as they were but a rehash of what she had already said.
6: Required: an editor
Finally, once you think your story is complete, put it away for a day, a week, a month, then reread and re-evaluate. You will see things you totally glossed over during your first twenty drafts. Then hire an editor. I’m an editor myself, but I wasn’t able to see the structural changes my manuscript needed or what was missing that needed to be said. I was too close to the story to be objective. For example, it was my editor who convinced me that my husband’s and other children’s stories were crucial to paint a full picture. Once she set me on the right path, I was finally able to bring my book to publication.
Writing can help you tame your grief monster. It can also reassure other grievers that they are not alone in feeling such roiling emotions. Once I published my memoir, people contacted me to tell me how my story helped them and to share their own stories. Connecting in this way has been an unexpected bonus that I treasure. I wish you the same.
Susan Robinson is the author of the memoir Say His Name: A Mother’s Grief and children’s picture books When Poke Woke and Poke’s Toque. A former classroom teacher and university writing instructor, she works as a freelance editor. Susan lives in Delaware with her husband and two spoiled Aussies and loves spending time with her grandkids. Visit her website: https://www.susanrobinsonauthor.com.