Writing & Grief

The world has been exceptionally heavy this past week or so.  I’ve been waffling on what to write here since so much of what I’d like to talk about seems almost frivolous in the face of devastating hurricanes and yet another mass shooting.  John Scalzi recently spoke of this in a general sense, about writing when the weight of the world is pushing you down.  But more specifically, today I’d like to talk about writing through grief.

My brother David died on New Year’s Eve, 2003.  It wasn’t an expected death, not the result of any illness or anything preventable.  Just a stray bullet fired when it shouldn’t have been, and he was gone.  Like that.  He was 24 years old.

David was a jazz musician.  He was one of the most passionate, creatively talented people I knew, and now he was just gone from the world.  All the things he could’ve done, all the songs he could’ve written, all he could’ve contributed to the world with his passion, none of it would happen.

I was a year younger than him, fresh out of grad school at the time and stumbling my way into adult independence.  Grief came like a hammer-blow.  I wasn’t in a good place to openly grieve much; I was financially unstable and in a living situation I can generously describe as fraught.  So I carried it around like a quiet weight inside me for a long time, as if the iron head of that hammer had lodged itself in my chest.

I didn’t write much in the year that followed.  In general I was an optimist, quick on the rebound and convinced there was little in the world that couldn’t be solved with a little imagination and a determination to do good.  But grief wasn’t something you rebounded from after a good night’s sleep.  My brother was missing from my life.  Everything felt off-balance.

What was the point of me telling stories about dragons or superheroes in the wake of such a loss?

Over time, my grief scarred over, healing as all wounds do.  I gradually began writing again, though there were some days where his absense struck me more.  There were days where I turned his loss over and over in my head, wondering how I could best honor his life.

About three years later, I pulled a half-finished novel draft out of the trunk.  I’d gotten stuck on Chapter 6, not really sure where the plot was supposed to go.  I played with it, writing a few sentences, and then a paragraph.  The next thing I knew, I’d broken the story’s dam open and the words began to flow again.

I was about two-thirds of the way through that first draft when I realized I was writing about David’s loss.

My main character was, in her own sideways manner, a creator of stories.  She, too, lost someone imporant to her.  She, too, stared into the abyss and wondered what the point of it was.  The book was the two of us feeling our way towards the answer.

Telling a good story isn’t the end-goal.  It’s what that story gives to the person who hears it.  Stories give us hope, and joy.  They give us insight and empathy.  They give us a new perspective.  They show us ways of being in this world, and dealing with all the ups and downs that entails.

purple flower
Nevertheless, we persist.

I can’t tell you what your own path through grief will be like.  That road is deeply personal.  But I can tell you, with certainty, that the world needs your voice.  It might take you a while to figure out what you want to say, especially when the world feels like it’s spinning off into the darkness.  But your story matters.  And one day, when you are ready, I would love to hear it.


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