Writing Your Way Through Grief

"Day 39," by Luciano Belviso, via Flickr.com under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by Joan Zlotnick, a retired English professor.

I imagine that many of you who have come to this site are caregivers experiencing anticipatory grief or have recently been bereaved. There are many things you can do with your grief – wallow in it, spread it around, medicate it, bring it to a psychotherapist. Widowed almost five years ago after twelve years of caregiving, I’ve done all those things at various times, but the best way I’ve found to deal with grief is to write about it.

Writing has been therapeutic for me at every stage of my grief. During the years that my husband suffered from a rare form of dementia, I kept a journal. It didn’t change the facts of our lives. We were inhabitants of the strange and lonely Planet Illness, where I felt as disoriented and helpless as Alice when she found herself in Wonderland or Dorothy when she discovered she was in Oz.

When I began keeping a journal, I felt immediate relief. I finally had a place to vent, without having to consider how my words would impact on someone else. I wasn’t worried about shocking, scaring, or burdening a listener, about revealing too much that was private, about the dreaded but inevitable outcome: becoming an object of pity.

Writing also gave me a rare feeling of having control over something. I could choose what to write about, arrange my thoughts in whatever way I wanted, and decide which words I would use to express those thoughts. Even more importantly, it provided a venue for contemplating some of the more abstract aspects of caregiving, including the unexpected gift of deepening love between my husband and myself, the insights and strengths I had gained as a result of our ordeal, and the deep faith I had retained despite it.

After I was widowed, I continued to write. This time, it was a memoir. Writing helped me process my grief and also remember my husband as he had been before the onset of his illness. I was desperate to reclaim those good memories and share them with our family. Consumed by the problems of getting through each day, I had not always found it easy to remember the talented, intelligent, vibrant man I had married.

Now, though, I needed to get him back. Writing the memoir gave me a reason to get up each day. I wrote eight, ten, hours at a time, sometimes forgetting to stop for meals. The writing kept me going. It gave me ballast on the days I felt as empty as a ghost; it lifted me when I felt too weighted down with grief to crawl out from under the covers. It gave me purpose and, more than anything else, it was therapeutic, slowly bringing me back to life.

When the memoir – which felt too raw and private to publish – was finished, I still needed to write. I went on to my next project, Griefwriting, a novel about a widowed professor who teaches a course in therapeutic writing. Caregiving, bereavement, and the redefinition of the self after loss are subjects I’d written about before, but now, in novel form, with a protagonist resembling me but definitely not me, I felt comfortable publishing the book. It was deeply satisfying to learn how many people found reading it cathartic. Many told me that it validated their feelings, made them feel less alone, and gave them hope for the future. Some even tried therapeutic writing and found it enormously helpful.

About now, some of you must be thinking that therapeutic writing might work for someone else, but not for you. Maybe you never liked writing in school. Maybe it was your worst subject. I don’t think it matters because now there’s no one to point out your mistakes. In fact, there’s no such thing as a mistake when you embark on this endeavor. You’re writer, editor, reader – all wrapped into one. You’re the person in charge. You can write for five minutes or five hours. You never have to publish what you’ve written or show it to anyone.

The writing is by you and for you, unless, of course, you decide at some point that you want to share it. If you do, you’ll discover that writing about your grief is a win-win situation. It’s not only a way of wresting something positive from the most devastating experience of your life, of standing up to despair and not letting yourself be defeated by it, but also a way of helping others.

About the Author

A retired professor of English, Joan Zlotnick’s publications include Portrait of an American City: The Novelists’ New York and numerous articles in scholarly journals. More recently, she has published a novel,  Griefwriting. She also writes a blog for Open to Hope and has written for Seeds4Life, The Drabble, Kveller, and Kindness Blog.

About Joan Zlotnick
A retired professor of English, Joan Zlotnick's publications include Portrait of an American City: The Novelists' New York and numerous articles in scholarly journals. More recently, she has published a novel, Griefwriting. She also writes a blog for Open to Hope and has written for Seeds4Life, The Drabble, Kveller, and Kindness Blog.

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