LESSONS FROM GRIEF WRITING: A Candle to Light Our Way in the Darkness

Writing is another way art can help us heal.

I’ve been leading group writing workshops for people who are grieving–grieving the loss of their mom, their dad, their wife or husband, their child, their sister or brother or best friend.

For this project, I’m ‘on loan’ to the bereavement section of the hospice team. A social worker runs the group management part, and I handle the writing part.

It’s scary space for me. I was terrified I would delve too deep in my prodding, and drive someone into a frenzy of grief. I ran to my hospice supervisor for help. She reassured me. “People are pretty tough,” she said. “You’re not going to break them!”

She’s right. Yes, sometimes the writing assignments bring tears. But tears are good in the grieving process. And people are amazed at the places their writing is taking them.

There’s something about the actual physical act of writing that is very different than speaking, or even typing or texting. It accesses a different part of the brain, thus allowing the brain to process grief in a different way. Many assignments start off on one foot and firm ground. About halfway through, something else comes through, and the writing enters new territory.

It’s startling and new. It’s powerful. It doesn’t ‘fix’ grief–nothing can do that–but it seems to set the healing process in motion. It’s like having an injury that hurts and hurts, persisting through time, until a physical therapist shows you what muscles to soften and what muscles to strengthen. The cycle of inflammation and pain is broken, and true healing can begin. That’s what grief writing can do.

Of course, social workers know the group thing is important, too. Sharing loss with others who are in the same boat is hugely helpful. No matter how shy or reserved we are, we are all still social animals. We suffer in our own unique way, and we feel so alone.

We may suffer in solitude, but we need not suffer in isolation. Being able to connect with others who empathize, connects us to our human condition.

I still believe the writing is the match that starts the candle burning. It’s a flare of energy and insight, making the light that lets us see into the darkness.

LESSONS FROM HOSPICE #3: The Grief Writing Workshop Continues

What will survive of us is love.

I had to laugh when I looked through my drafts file this morning. I have tons of posts labeled “Lessons from Hospice”, but I see I’ve only published a handful. I realize now some of them seem simple, but are too much for me to handle. I’m reminded that so many of the good lessons in life are simple. But not necessarily easy.

Today’s thoughts come from the Grief Writing Workshop I’ve been running for a couple months now. We’re on session number two, with most of the first members signing up for another round, and some new members, too.

I’m seeing the changes in people already. When some of them started, their grief was palpable, written on their faces and even in their postures. It’s astonishing to see the changes in them as they begin the healing process. As they work towards peace and acceptance, they literally seem to glow. Such is the healing power of writing.

When I first struggled to get a grip on what this workshop would be like, I found this essay by Kathleen Adams extremely helpful. For anyone who’d like to pursue a career in such work, I highly recommend her website JournalTherapy.com.

The free-writing technique I learned years ago may be too overwhelming for those who are still in the raw stages of grieving. A simple but flexible structure in my workshop helps immensely.

We have a typical support group opening (establishing rules of confidentiality, for example). We name our loved one–because our culture is so uncomfortable with death, people hesitate to even say their name or bring up their death. For those who have lost someone, this feels like that person has truly been erased from the earth.

We do a few simple warm-up exercises, then move into writing on various topics. I started out with my own, but as people grew more comfortable, they started bringing their ideas, too. We do poetry-writing exercises, and I usually end by reading a favorite poem or prayer. We end as we began–saying our name, and the name of the one we’ve lost.

So simple. So ridiculously, delightfully simple. Yet the results are simply blowing me out of the water each week.

Of course, I’m not really teaching these people how to write. They come to the class because they already write, or they want to write more. I’m not even teaching them to write write WELL. I don’t edit their work, nor criticize their efforts in any way.

I give them the time, the resources, and the encouragement to do what their heart yearns to do–to contemplate what has been lost, and what has been found, in writing.

If anything, the greatest gift I give them is just this: Permission.

Permission to write, because it is important to them. Permission to write, because they love to write. Permission to write, because they want to.

“Write for yourself!” I tell them constantly. “Write your truth, your thoughts. Use writing to get yourself to a place you can’t get to with just talking, just thinking. Write the raw stuff. Write the mistakes, the scribbles, the doubts. Write ‘blah blah blah’ if you can’t think of anything to write–but write down the blah blah blah. Write as if you are the only person who will ever see it. Sure, use this later for inspiration, for ideas, for essays, poetry, whatever. But start here: Write because you must.”

I show them a gem of a book I found in my research for this class, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. The book is fine, but what I love best is the title. The writing is in your bones, and you have to do it.

(BTW, it looks like Natalie Goldberg and I went to University of Michigan at the same time. I wonder if our paths ever crossed?)

I couldn’t become the artist I always dreamed of being until I finally realized I HAD TO MAKE ART. And when I let go of the idea of being a GOOD ARTIST. When I accepted that it didn’t matter if it were good or bad, it simply had to exist in the world–and the only way that could happen was through me.

So, too, these folks are slowly losing the coulda/shoulda/woulda stuff that holds back any creative effort. They simply pour their hearts and their souls into the work.

And what comes through is exquisitely, profoundly beautiful. And poignant. And gentle/sad/raging/full of wonder and joy.

And after every session, I marvel at the miracle that has occurred right in front of me, from a small circle of strangers, now friends, who have blessed me, and each other, with the tender gift of their grieving, healing hearts.

So what’s the lesson? I dunno. I thought I’d just write this today, and not wait til it was wrapped up neatly in a package tied with ribbon for you.

I guess I’m learning that even when the worst thing you can imagine happens to you–the loss of your child, your soul mate, your sibling, your dearest friend–even as your heart is breaking and you feel like it is not possible for a human being to cry any more tears–there is a place of healing, and hope, and joy at the gift you had, and how no one can ever truly take that away from you.

I’m learning there is a place where all can be forgiven, if never quite understood.

I’m learning that sometimes, the most important person to forgive is yourself.

I’m learning that everyone is deserving of love. That we all yearn for it, need it, cry for it.

I’m learning, every day, that the line from Philip Larkn’s An Arundel Tomb is true, if only (and it’s such an important ‘if’) because we need it to be true:

What will survive of us is love.

WRITING IT OUT #1: Goodbye, Mrs. Koebnik, and Thank You!

This week concluded my very first workshop in grief journaling at Home Health Care and Community Services. I’m a hospice and bereavement volunteer there, and offered to teach their very first workshop.

I think it was a success. I didn’t hurt anyone, and the participants want to do another round of sessions. Yay! But as always, as much as I taught, I learned.

As always, I’m free to share my thoughts and observations, but not those of the folks in the workshop. We respect each other’s privacy: What’s said in group, stays in group. Over the next few days, I’ll share what I’ve learned about writing and grief.

The last exercise was writing a letter from our loved one who has died. It was framed beautifully: No matter how complicated the death or the loved one, we envisioned them being in a ‘higher place’. For some, that place was spiritual. For others, it was simply imagining that person speaking from their best self–past the suffering, past their emotional suffering, past the hardship.

I quoted something my friend Teo said to me years ago. “I like to think that everyone is doing the best they can,” she said one day, when I was complaining about a mutual friend. Such a generous statement, from a generous woman.

I also shared a story another friend told me years ago. Her husband was told he had less than a week to live, and that turned out to be true. His undetected illness had changed him emotionally. His physical discomfort (exhaustion, anxiety) manifested itself in harsh actions and words. The last few years had been hard for both of them.

But those last few precious days, much was healed. He had a chance to say how he really felt about her, and how sorry he was that he had been so difficult. As hard as it was to lose the love of her life, my friend received a precious gift in their last tender hours together.

Imagine them there, I told the group. They are in a place where all is forgiven, where anger and fear and frustration are gone. All that’s left is love, their ‘better self’. What would they say to you?

All of us cried as we wrote. Not a dry eye in the room!

But I was surprised by my reaction. Because my person has been dead for over 30 years. And she was simply a neighbor down the street I had befriended.

So of all the people I’ve lost–friends and family, from suicide to cancer, why did I write a letter from her?

I was doing graduate work in education, one of the happiest periods of my life. I had love, I had a career goal, I was focused and proactive, in control of my destiny. Our neighborhood was beautiful–full of trees and parks, with lovely older homes on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side. There was an ice cream dairy bar down the street, a neighborhood elementary school close by, and a mix of young families, older students, retirees. We all knew each other and socialized often.

Louise Koebnik, 84, lived down the street from me, in the house she was born in.. I knew her for about four years. She was an active and plain-spoken woman. Her husband had died young and left her to raise three children, alone. They all grew up to be well-educated and talented people with loving families of their own.

She worked hard her whole life. Even in her 80’s, she had an incredible vegetable garden, with tomatoes grown in a bath tub in the back yard (to protect their roots from those of the poisonous black walnut tree that grew nearby.) She gathered the nuts from that same tree each fall, laboriously going through all the steps that make them edible, and made walnut cookies with them.

I was one of the few people invited into her home for coffee and chats. She was forthright and said what was on her mind. I adored her.

My favorite memory of her is this: A snowstorm in winter. Big flakes of snow falling. Mrs. Koebnik (no matter how often she asked me to call her Louise, it just seemed more polite to call her Mrs. Koebnik) standing on her sidewalk (she had a corner lot, with two long sidewalks) wearing her old-fashioned big wool coat, a scarf tied around her head, and big clunky boots. Bearing a broom, and sweeping as the snow fell. She refused to ask for help shoveling, and once the snow accumulated too much, she couldn’t dig herself out. But she would sweep as the snowflakes fell, moving up and down her sidewalks, keeping the walk clear until it finally stopped. I still laugh as I think of her, looking like an old babushka, determined and vigilant against the storm.

One day I got a call from Jon, my husband, telling me terrible news: Mrs Koebnik had been raped, beaten and strangled to death.

She was the last victim of a serial killer, a young drifter who had left a trail of death and violence through many states. He was eventually caught and is serving life sentences in prison.

For almost 30 years, her death has haunted me. It seemed horrible that someone could lead such an exemplary life, providing so much, asking for so little, and spend her last hour on this earth in hell. I agonized for her. I feared for myself.

So where do we find peace in this? There is no “bright side”, no lesson to be learned. No solace. For me, her entire life was rewritten by this one terrible act.

Bereavement training helped. I learned about “complicated death”–death by suicide, by murder.

I began to have forgiveness for myself, for finding it so hard to let go.

Small healing thoughts began to form. I began to wonder if Mrs. K had fought back, which gave me some comfort. I realized her death is truly an anomaly.

And the letter ‘she’ wrote to me was wonderful:

Dear Luann,
I’ve been listening to your thoughts, your confusion, your despair and sadness about my death. I was a little miffed at first, I have to admit. It wasn’t YOU who was raped, beaten and strangled–it was ME!!

And it was no picnic either, I can tell you.

But mercifully, it was short. Shorter than childbirth, though with a sadder ending. No baby in my arms at the end, just….gone.

But at least the pain was over and done.

And I know it’s upsetting to think about and it’s hard to hear the story and it’s a terrible thing to think might happen to you.

But Luann, girlie, I want you to know this…..

My life was a good one, and a long one, full of joy and sadness, hardship and love, success and happiness. I worked hard, and I did what I had to do.

And I’d do it all over again, in a heartbeat.

What that kid did to me–well, that wasn’t right, and he’s a sick one, no doubt about it. But he can’t hurt me anymore. And he can’t hurt anybody else, ever.

But if you let this sit and eat way at your heart, then girlie, you are LETTING him hurt YOU.

And that ain’t right.

You must be smarter, and stronger than that. Life is hard enough without borrowing someone else’s troubles.

And life is too wonderful to give over even one more minute to that. Not one more minute.

So you go hug your kids and kiss your husband, and rejoice. Stand in the snow with a broom, if you want to remember me. And make cookies. And eat ’em, too.

Now I’ve got to get going. It was nice hearing from you again. Keep your chin up, kiddo.

Love,
Louise

I was astonished at what I had written. I could hear her voice, I could see the words she’d used. It was her.

I cried. And as I cried, I realized my poem, Burial Song, I actually wrote for her. (I had never realized that before.)

And so this week I have peace in my heart. Not cured. But healed.

And that is the power of writing, and that is the lesson I learned this week.

GRIEF WRITING WORKSHOP

Another announcement. Boy, I’m full of ’em today….

I’ll be leading a writing workshop during the month of February at Home Health Care and Community Services here in Keene NH. This is part of their bereavement support program. We’ll be meeting Wednesday nights from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., Feb. 2 through Feb. 23.

We’ll explore ways to explore our thoughts, feelings and memories through writing and poetry. The structure is flexible, and no prior writing experience is necessary.

This workshop is appropriate for anyone who is struggling with grief–loss of a loved one; divorce; loss of a pet or companion; a life-changing event.

You can see more about this workshop, and others, at the HCS website: HCS Grief Support Groups, Winter 2011. Or call them at 1-800-541-4145.

As always, if you know someone in the area who would like to participate, please pass this on to them.

I’ve found writing to be a powerful way to uncover deep insight and understanding during difficult times in my life. I’m looking forward to sharing this healing process with others.

HELPING OTHERS WHO GRIEVE

I’m pulling together materials to help me run a writing workshop for bereavement support. I’ve been browsing local bookstores and surfing the net for resources.

I found a wonderful little book, 101 WAYS YOU CAN HELP: How to Offer Comfort and Support to Those Who Are Grieving by Liz Aleshire.

A quick flip through the book revealed succinct, concrete ways to help someone who’s experienced the loss of a loved one.

I like how the book is organized, by whether the person who needs your support is a family member, a friend, a co-worker, etc.

I like that the suggestions work. That same day, I called a friend who’d just lost someone. Normally, I’d invite the person over for a meal. Liz’s book suggested taking a meal to them. Sure enough, the “dinner here” and “dinner out” invitations were refused. But the “How about we come to your house with dinner?” invitation was received with surprise and gratitude.

I like that some of the suggestions are counter-intuitive. For example, she says sometimes you gotta be a little pushy. This echoes something I learned in my bereavement training. For example, we are urged to call people even if they don’t answer the phone. The grieving person may not feel like talking. But they appreciate knowing that you’ve called, even in only to leave a message. So call them regularly, even if it feels like you’re talking into space. You’re not.

But what I like best about the book is the back story.

Liz Aleshire lost her 16-year-old son to bone cancer. So she knows grief personally. For thirteen years, she carried the devastation of his loss.

And Liz died before her book was finished–literally of a broken heart. Health issues complicated a series of heart attacks that finally ended her life.

If that weren’t poignant enough, Liz’s book was finished after her death–by her friends. The members of her small writing group came together to care and support Liz through her trials. And they helped her finish the book. Careful to retain Liz’s distinctive “voice”, they wrote and edited from Liz’s outline and drafts, bringing the book to publication.

All of this is astonishing. But the final kicker is…

I know one of the authors
.

Paula Chaffee Scardamalia and I met when she interviewed me for an article in the May 2000 issue of The Crafts Report magazine. We were both taking our craft as far as we could, doing the show circuit, acquiring galleries to carry our work, etc. Everything was bright and shiny, all opportunities full with the promise of success.

I really enjoyed talking with her; she’s a fellow fiber artist, warm, insightful and a great writer. We emailed back and forth for awhile, but then we lost touch.

And then big things happened in the world, things that changed us deeply. Our ideas about “success” made a paradigm shift. Many of us now look in other places beyond fame and fortune for what the work of our hands can accomplish, in the world and in our hearts.

To see her name in this book was a wonderful example of synchronicity. I’ve learned that, just as I’ve added writing and hospice to my life, she does less weaving (mostly custom orders now) and more writing and life coaching.

She’s pleased that I find Liz’s book so appealing. It’s a reminder that the good we do lives after us. She hopes the book will find its way into the hands of more people.

Because grief eventually touches us all. Where there is love, or the hope of love, or the failure of love, there is grief. Only in indifference are we spared. And indifference is a high price to pay, to be spared the pain of grief.

And I marvel, once again, at how the threads of our lives touch, entwine, pass on…and touch again.

So here’s my shout-out for Liz’s book. I’m going to order extra copies for our hospice library. It’s already helped me out. I hope you’ll find it helpful, too.

ANOTHER LEAP INTO THE SKY

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned here that I took the next step in my hospice training. I did bereavement training a few months ago–sort of my current “major” in hospice work. My brain and heart continue to expand.

I still love my hospice work. I just felt called to explore the next steps–what comes when a client’s journey is done, and the survivors are left to pick up the pieces of their lives. My supervisor Lorraine says, bereavement support kicks in “when the casseroles stop coming.”

I’ve joined a drop-in bereavement group at local hospice facility as a volunteer assistant facilitator. This group of people have been through so much pain and distress. They soldier on, sharing their grief with others who are on the same journey. I am humbled in their presence.

Last week I was asked if I’d be interested in facilitating a grief journaling support group. I could almost feel my heart leap as I exclaimed, “Oh, YES, I’d LOVE to do that!”

And of course, within ten minutes, I was paralyzed by the responsibility. I…can’t…..do…..this!!!!

I’m implementing my standard strategy of trying to ignore my absolutely bonkers left brain (committee/critic/commentator) and begging my right brain (faith/hope/intuition) to step in.

So today I’m sending frantic emails to my poor bereavement supervisor, who is trying to be on vacation this week. I start each missive with an apology and a note to just let it sit in her in-box until she gets back, followed by a list of ideas, thoughts, questions.

And of course, I worry that she’s already regretting asking me to do this.

I’m researching grief journaling, sending away for books on poetry-writing.

And as always, I’m trying to remember my friend Quinn McDonald’s advice. When I’m frantic, I take a minute to see where that’s coming from. Hmmmmm….the fear this experiment won’t be perfect. Which makes it….about me. And this work is definitely not about me.

I am astonished how tied up this all is with my artwork. The themes of healing and connection, of what it means to be human, of what binds us together and sets us apart… All currently a big ball of soft, tangled yarn in lovely, shimmery colors.

And as my little diamond dove Malchik wings his way around my studio and lands on my shoulder, curious to see what the frantic clicking noise is I make with my fingers on my keyboard, I think of that haunting poem by Rumi:

The way of love is not
a subtle argument.

The door there
is devastation.

Birds make great sky-circles
of their freedom.
How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,
they’re given wings.

— Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

The workshop runs in February, once a week for a month. Wish me luck. Send me your thoughts & suggestions, too.

THREE LIVES IN KEENE NH

Today I’ll be writing one of the hardest letters I’ve ever written in my life. It is long overdue. And I have no idea how it will be received.

I’m writing a letter to the parents of a boy who died six years ago. We’ve never even met. I don’t know them, and I didn’t know their son. But I owe them a letter.

Let me back up to tell this story.

Six years ago, three children died in our area. They were all around sixteen. Their lives seemed very different. Our local newspaper treated their deaths very differently, too.

One was a young man, a talented athlete, who had recently transferred here from another school district. He had a few beers with friends one hot summer day, and went swimming afterward. An innocent act with fatal consequences. The swimming hole, infamous for a treacherous whirlpool, was a deadly one–it’s claimed 15 lives in just over thirty years. He drowned.

One was a young woman, a talented scholar and musician. Born with a congenital heart defect, she died suddenly while jogging.

The last was a young man who could euphemistically be called a “troubled youth”. He’d recently broken up with his girlfriend. He took her car one evening. Her family reported it stolen. Local police gave chase, tailing him down the street our local high school is on, at speeds approaching 100 mph. Though they abandoned their chase, he continued on, lost control of the car and smashed into a stone bridge. He died instantly.

The young woman was given a lovely tribute in our paper (page 3), with friends, teachers and family mourning her loss.

The young athlete was lauded and honored almost daily in the paper for days, with front page essays alluding to A.E. Housman’s poem,
“To an Athlete Dying Young”. Proposals were made to rename an athletic field in his name. Demands were made to dynamite the swimming hole. Many other memorials were suggested, until his grieving family finally said, “Enough. Please, enough.”

The third young man? I can hardly bear to say….

His death became the source of swirling controversy in our community, on whether police engaging in high-speed chases are justified, or if it results in needless accidents and death. Much was made of his “troubled past”.

Some even wrote letters to the editor, suggesting that anyone who commits a crime and runs from the police, deserves to die.

I asked my daughter if she knew him. Yes, she said, she had a crush on him in middle school. But she was too shy to let him know. She thought he was sweet and funny. One day he drew a picture of a dragon for her.

All I could think of was the grief that must have swamped his family. ALL the families, but especially his. I wanted to write to them.

But I didn’t know what to say.

Except that no sixteen-year-old deserves to be judged in such a way. That no one knows when or how someone will turn their life around. That the loss of a child is hard enough, without people debating whether they deserved to live at all.

In bereavement class last week, I shared this story. Everyone said, “Write the letter.”

But it’s been years, I said. Isn’t it too late?

“It’s never to late to write a letter like that,” the instructor said.

And so here I sit, a copy of the obituary in hand.

It’s unbearably short.

Not the 3-or-4-column listing of achievements and honors. His life was too short for that. And he wasn’t on that track anyway.

No editorial about the loss to our community. Just a mention that friends were invited to the services.

There’s the mention of his family. And a note that he enjoyed playing the guitar.

In lieu of flowers, donations to be made to day care centers in the area, presumably the ones he attended as a youngster.

I hope those were happy times for him.

No mention, of course, that years later, his “bad boy friends” have all succeeded in turning their lives around and are on their way to leading constructive and fulfilling lives. Who could foresee that?

No mention of an act of kindness to my daughter in middle school, where my daughter had a very, very hard time. Who would note such a tiny event?

In any case, I think I’ve found his parents, and I think I know what to say now.

I’m going to apologize for not writing sooner.

I’m going to apologize for not attending the funeral. That at times like that, even a stranger can be a friend.

I’m going to apologize for not letting the editors of the paper know MY opinion of the way these “news stories” were handled.

I’m going to tell them how sorry I am that they lost their son so young, before he even had a chance to find his place in the world. That I know they will miss him forever, because he was their child, and he was loved.

And I’m going to tell them that once he drew a picture of a dragon for a young girl, who thought he was sweet and funny.