“Write a list of questions,” Ellen instructed. “Anything that comes to mind. Just let your pen flow across the page.” I sat around Ellen’s cozy table with a small group of students and began.
“Will I ever be happy again?”
“Should I get a puppy?”
“What do I love?”
“Can I survive without Vic’s love?”
“Is the woman I was a year ago as dead as Vic?”
“Who is the Green Man?”
I wrote a page of questions, and as I wrote, tears dripped down my cheeks. I had kept a journal during Vic’s illness and written down every detail of his struggles and death. I recorded my psychological reactions, my fears, anger, exhaustion, and love. But after Vic’s death in June 2008, I stopped writing. Instead, I walked the trails on my land two or three times a day with my dog and friends. I grew flowers and vegetables. I spent time with my sons and anyone who could stand my grief, went to therapy, and painted my dreams, but I needed to hear my own story so I could digest what had happened to me.
I joined a class with a wonderful writing teacher, but sobbed my way through my pieces and felt that my tears drowned everyone in the room. The kind teacher gently suggested I try writing about topics other than my loss.
But I couldn’t. I was only interested in finding words for the grief that filled every corner of my waking life and dreams since Vic’s death. I needed to understand the upheaval of my body and life. Nothing else mattered.
My therapist suggested I check into a class called “Writing through the Rough Spots.” That workshop title was the permission I needed. I called Ellen Schmidt.
” Are you starting a new writing group soon?” I asked, choking back tears.
“Just a few weeks from now,” she said.
“I need to write about death and loss,” I told her, weeping openly now. “I’m managing my practical life, but I need to write about the suffering I’ve witnessed and what I’ve lost. I cry a lot,” I added the obvious. “My tears are hard for others.”
“You are welcome to join us. People write about almost everything here. I lead small supportive classes, and many choose to write about hard things. Writing is often therapeutic and the classes are confidential,” Ellen stressed. “They are not therapy groups, but an opportunity to create clarity about challenging situations through writing.”
That first class, in March 2009, I wrote my list, embarrassed by my tears as I read a few of my questions out loud. Ellen smiled at me from the end of the table. I trusted her with my grief. Then I wrote a short piece about a dream I had eight days after Vic’s death where I met a giant Green Man sitting in a bathtub with foliage for hair. In the dream, I was told I would live in the house of the Green Man, a northern European pre-Christian Nature god of birth and death. My piece ended with these words:
“There is much I must learn from the Green Man. He is a gentle teacher, yet his lessons are devastating. All that is born must die. Of course, I knew about death before, but now I truly know. Life does not last. Birth always leads to death. It amazes me that I blocked this from everyday consciousness for so long, but we all forget. We all think we have time. Of course, we have many cycles of time. But is the woman I was a year ago as dead as Vic? What has died in me? What cycles on?”
Four years later, I still sit at Ellen’s table each week, explore my original questions, and write about many new ones.
Has writing helped you survive the rough spots? Have you written alone or in classes? Here is more information about Ellen Schmidt’s Writing Room Workshops. You might enjoy this post about healing and writing: Gratitude and Grief. Here’s a terrific article about research that proves that writing about our losses heals.
Mr. Guercio was my 7th grade English teacher at Mill Middle School. He was a hard teacher, and not popular with students. One in-class assignment was to write about something that happened over the summer break or some other equally inane topic. I decided to challenge what I thought were his expectations…that the girls would write some insipid crap about some cute boy or some mean girl….and wrote instead about the horribly wrenching loss of my grandmother three years earlier. The pain was still raw and I was still angry. I laid it all out there as a defiant but vulnerable pre-teen. Mr. Guercio used his English teacher’s red pen to, unexpectedly, praise my writing as well as my honesty. I never thought of him the same way again and remain grateful for his tender acknowledgment of my loss. I still have that essay with his kind remarks written in the margins.
Thanks for this wonderful story, Liz. Writing heals, and a good writing teacher knows that. So glad you learned this in 7th grade and I hope Mr. Guercio inspired a few others to write their stories.
Like you, after the loss of the love of my life I lost my voice for almost a year. Such a wonderful essay on the process of writing about your grief; and how Ellen Schmidt smiled upon your tears as permission to tell the story.
When we don’t fight against it, grief quiets the mind in an unexpected way. Wordless mental stillness often comes with the constant ache of longing and sorrow. Ellen helped me as a writing teacher, a woman who accepted my tears, and the person who first saw possibility in my short written memories. And then came Jill Swenson and Swenson Book Development with more support in the mysteries of grieving and writing.
I think its so interesting and revealing that you couldn’t write–I have found it takes time to integrate all this on a deep, non-literal level. Only when you come back from the underworld can you begin to put it in words.
In the Harry Potter books, there is mention of a magical creature called a thestral, who is only visible to those who have seen death. I think there is deep “magic” in those who can return and articulate their experience with loss. To really wrestle with bringing an experience beyond words and putting it into words that can point to the experience without minimizing it. And whatever level one is able to do that, going through the process itself works on you deeply.
Thanks for this, Charlene.
In this odd, stunned way, while I wept and ached, a deeper part of my mind was quiet after Vic’s death. On the other hand, I spoke about what I’d seen to whoever would listen to me and I’m grateful to have close friends and adult sons who were also grieving and could endure my tears. Also a wonderful therapist and helpful dreams. There was no doubt I was in the Underworld.
I’ve been working with a group of women for more than 25 years studying women’s mythology. We spent two years on Eros and Psyche and many years on the Greek Goddesses. We studied a host of fairytales and spent years on the myths of Inanna. We are now working on Egyptian goddess mythology–a lifetime study. Each story of death and rebirth gave me a small foothold in the Underworld, especially Inanna, Persephone, and Orpheus. But like anyone, I had to be stripped down before trying to put the experience into words. You say this so well.
Beautiful as always, Elaine. Your stories always make me think ~ and remember. Many years ago, I took an evening creative writing class which, as it happened, took place just a few weeks after I’d suddenly lost a very beloved dog after he’d been hit by a car. One night the creative writing teacher gave us an assignment to write about someone important to us. Try as I might to comply, at the time I was so in touch with my own particular loss that my Muffin was the only individual who came to mind. I asked the teacher if the “someone” could be a cherished animal companion. She was a bit taken aback, but after giving it some thought, she said okay. The piece I wrote, “Memories of Muffin,” eventually became the introduction for the book I would later write, “The Final Farewell: Preparing for and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet.” To this day I am grateful to that teacher for letting me write what I was feeling at the time and saying what I needed to say. Loss is loss, pain is pain, and grief needs to be expressed. Writing is a wonderful tool for making that happen. ♥
Thank you for your story, Marty. I always love what you write, because your words come straight from the heart. Writing brings essential issues to the surface, sometimes things we are trying to avoid or that our inner judge deems unworthy of our attention. When we follow our heart and the images that insist on showing up, just as you did, there is new direction and a sense of release and relief. I remember reading about Muffin. My dog Willow is the first dog I’ve loved entirely on my own without my childhood or adult family. Our mutual attachment reminds me of the vulnerability that comes with love whether it be my dog, my kids, my friends, or my husband. Love and grief are close companions of the heart.
Writing is what saved me after my daughter died. I sat alone at the dining room table day after day with her dog at my feet. She had written poems and songs and I wrote responses to them. There was a lot of comfort in that. I was trying to duet with my dead daughter. When Jill Swenson of Swenson Book Development found what I was doing she encouraged me to write to the rest of the world, to tell my story. The healing power of writing increased still more.
Beautiful, Robin. We’ve both learned that writing heals and that it helps to read what others write about surviving grief, being transformed by it, and creating a new life based on that transformation. What can we do except change our human catastrophes into expressions of our soul and help for others?
Wonderful article and comments. Before my late husband, Paul, was diagnosed with leukemia I was on a path to become a healing through journal writing teacher. I had completed a certificate in social services, which was one component I needed to accomplish. (I assisted the social service director in a nursing home.) I wrote during his whole illness, but once he died I was unable to. After some time, I began writing my grief in a blog-like email to family and friends. The writing and the comments truly kept me alive from one day to the next.
I think I shall go back to the woman running the program for teaching journal writing and ask for an honorary certificate :>)
I’m really not ready to teach anything, but I will tuck this idea in my hat.
Sorry to go off on a bunny trail!
Patti, after Vic died I gave up the women’s health classes and private clients I had worked hard to build for 10 years. I kept waiting for my passion for teaching health classes to return. It never did and three years after Vic’s death, I dropped my certifications and let it go. I didn’t know what would replace that gap, but I had started writing about Vic’s and my experiences rather than writing about exercise and nutrition. First I wrote from traumatic memory and grief, but eventually I turned to all those journals I’d kept during his illness for the details in writing my book. After his death, my record of my journey was mostly in emails to friends as I stopped journaling for a while. But writing continued with a complete change in topic and hospice volunteering began as I looked for what would make my life matter again. Eventually I began writing for hospice newsletters and the website, took more hospice training, and began facilitating bereavement groups. I know your life has changed drastically, too. I moved one step at a time, never knowing where I was going or where the path led–and sometimes it led to a dead end. I still don’t know where I’m going, but when doors open, I walk through. New possibilities come up.
You certainly deserve an honorary certificate. Your recent poetry blog tickled my imagination, and I’m vaguely planning a blog of the poems I use in grief groups–with a little commentary. Always inspiring to try new things. It seems you are back to the writing life these day. You have so much to give. Thanks for reading and responding to this piece. Ellen is a great teacher and has become a supportive friend.