Eight years ago when my mother was dying, I wrote to her in a journal. Dear mama, I began, determined to keep up my side of the conversation after she had lost her ability to speak. My words on the page connected us, and offered me a place to release my spiraling sadness.
After she died, I continued.
What I didn’t realize at the time was how this practice would become the bridge that connected me from my life before to my life after.
Journaling was the one place I could be myself. I didn’t have to edit my responses or worse, endure other people’s advice about how to grieve. The truth is, there is no “right” way to mourn a loss. There is only your way. We all have to find our own way back, and the path I chose was with my words.
A couple weeks after her death it was time for me to go home. I dug in my heels, trying to resist being pulled back into the busy cycle of the world. My grief was raw and fresh. How could I possibly return?
This is a common problem in the modern age. There is no official “mourning” period. Most people have to return to work in a few days, or weeks if they’re lucky. No matter the circumstances, we all must return to our lives.
So, how can we honor our grief as we stagger back into the world? (Tweet that)
I remember standing on the terrace of my father’s house after my mom’s funeral, staring at the people basking on the beach below. My heart was broken, but for some reason the world didn’t stop. I waited until dusk when the sand cleared, and with my journal and pen in hand, I climbed onto the jetty and poured out my heart.
Loss is a natural part of life, but that doesn’t make it easy to accept or live through. Here some ways you can connect with your grief, no matter how much time has passed.
Write to feel
“I don’t know how I feel until I write it.” – Dani Shapiro
Writing is one way to process your feelings about grief. The type of writing you choose is up to you. There are many options: journaling, letter writing, fiction, poetry, list making. Maybe all of the above. The most important thing to know is that it’s never too late – or too soon – to begin.
Writing offers a release, an opening. Not away from the pain of loss, but inside it.
For some, grief creates the ultimate writer’s block. Prompts can help. Here are 5 powerful ones [*sources below]:
– Close your eyes and recall a favorite memory about your loved one. Think about it in terms of the five senses (see, hear, taste, smell, feel) and write a line about each.
– Think of one word that sums up how you feel today. Describe the emotion as if explaining it to someone who has never experienced it.
– Write a letter to the deceased and then write back to yourself in their voice. Don’t overthink or worry about getting it “right.”
– Ask yourself open-ended questions and free write for ten minutes without stopping. “Today my grief feels like,” “I’m really missing,” “I’m surprised that I feel,” and “I wish I knew.”
– Write a letter to someone you know who has suffered a loss similar to your own.* (This is something to consider in the later stages of grief.)
Write to remember
Some people feel compelled to talk and/or write about the details of their loved one’s death. This may seem morbid to the uninitiated, but it’s a common impulse, especially in early mourning.
Joan Didion explains this with eloquence in her book, The Year of Magical Thinking. “During the past months I have spent a great deal of time trying first to keep track of, and, when that failed, to reconstruct, the exact sequence of events that preceded and followed what happened that night.”
My father and I did this, often together, when my mom died. It was a strange but genuine comfort, reciting the litany of details and dates almost like a prayer.
Read through grief
After my mother died, I stopped reading. This surprised me, but fiction felt frivolous, and I wasn’t ready for self-help. For a while the only words that I could swallow were poems. This one, offered by a friend early on, was my anchor:
“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.”
– excerpted from “Funeral Blues” by W. H. Auden
There are countless poets to turn to, but Mary Oliver comes to mind, especially because her collection, Thirst, is about the death of her partner. Cheryl Strayed read and carried Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language during her 1,100 mile hike for its connection to her mother.
Recently I came across this poem, “You Are Not Crazy, You Are Grieving” by Christina Rasmussen (www.secondfirst.com) and found it full of truth.
“You breathe, but it is harder to do so
You walk, but your body’s gravity has changed…”
She describes the way back to life, a different life, in a way that respects grief.
“Your way back will happen very slowly.
Almost like a whisper…
You will be OK. Not the same. But OK…
Not you. But still you.”
What I grew to realize is that we’re never done with grief. This is not to say the pain remains the same. Grief shifts and softens as time goes by, cycling rather than completing (tweet that).
My mother never had a chance to meet my children, who were born after her death, but I recorded a dream in my journal that she met my daughter.
“Hurry,” I said to her, sensing our time was limited. I held my daughter close to her face, urging her to breath in the sweet baby smell. “Isn’t she wonderful?” I asked, and my mother smiled, nodding. “Yes, she is.”
Some people shut down their grief when they return to their lives. But grief is sneaky. It doesn’t disappear. It refuses to be ignored. The best thing you can do for your heart is to respect your grief, give it space (tweet that!) Listen to what it has to say and consider writing it down.
You may discover, as I did, that your own words provide comfort, even years later.
In addition to writing, creating photo albums and scrapbooks is a visual way to honor loved ones while mourning. Share in the comments what techniques have helped you through the grieving process, and if any of the ones mentioned above resonate.
Image credit: Seyed Mostafa Zamani