Writing Grief

by Sheila Bender

readingWhat do you do if you are a writer who held memorial services for your 25-year-old son, engaged to be married, dead from crashing into a tree while snowboarding? What do you do if you are a writer and the world you knew seems too far away now, too insignificant?

Perhaps you rise early each morning and watch the sun travel up the sky, go out each evening to follow its sure-fire into the horizon. Perhaps you look up the meanings of your son’s name and find one that matches a story you tell yourself about his essential spirit: the Egyptian god Seth was a protector of Ra’s sun boat. His role every day was to battle the dragon Apophis, who tried to devour the sun boat and cast the world into darkness.

Maybe you hear the weather man talk about storms that come from the warm air lying over cooler air. Grief is cold; memory is warm. Maybe you start to read the writing of others who have lost a beloved child, spouse, parent. In Lieu of Flowers: A Conversation for the Living by Nancy Cobb, Journey From Mount Rainier: A Mother’s Chronicle of Grief and Hope by Judith Lingle Ryan, Duino Elegies by Rainier Maria Rilke.

Slowly you start to see that weaving something beautiful about your boy and your love for him is what may quiet the storms or at least allow you to survive them. And you want to survive them for your daughter, your husband, your parents. For your son, too, as you know this is what he would want. “Chill, Mom,” you still hear him say, as he did whenever you created a drama that got in the way of clear thinking. This steady young man stayed the course, taught you so very much about being present and quietly connecting to nature, others, being of service.

You know you would have given up writing, your best thing, even your life, in areading long heartbeat if the trade meant your son could be alive. But that was not the opportunity you were given. Using your best thing is the only way to resurrect your son.

And so you begin re-teaching yourself, as you taught students, to write the poems you have to write. You turn to your desk copy of Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry and work on forms he examines, starting with a villanelle about your son’s death. Elizabeth Bishop’s open at your side, you experience a circling to retrieve loss. You emulate French poet Robert Desnos’ The Voice of Robert Desnos, calling in your own voice to the trees, to ice hanging in their branches, to the moon, not to let your son go airborne. You read Walt Whitman’s Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. Moved by repetitions to conjure and explore sensations of mortality and immortality, you start your own poem:

Out of daily steps and out of drives
on highways, out of hours’ rocky patches
and moments made of weeds, memories come.

The work requires tears, stillness, hope. After you write, you understand what William Blake knew:

Man was made for Joy & Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go.
Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine…
Every Tear from Every Eye…
The Bleat, the Bark, Bellow & Roar
Are Waves that Beat on Heaven’s Shore.

Seth BenderYou can live for two now, breathe with your son’s breath in yours. You will not give up your best thing. You will need it to save your world from darkness, to weave and reweave brilliant “Clothing for the Soul.”

This article originally appeared in the Writer’s Digest Magazine, October 2012

About the Author: Sheila Bender founded Writing It Real in 2002 as a way of helping those who want to break their writing out into new forms, revise effectively, and generate more writing. Her many instructional books on writing, published by small presses as well as McGraw-Hill and Writer’s Digest Books, include Creative Writing DeMystified and Writing and Publishing the Personal Essay. A poetry collection, Behind Us the Way Grows Wider, a digital book entitled Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief (available on Kindle and iTunes) and her memoir, A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, have garnered attention from Seattle University where she is a 2013 distinguished guest lecturer, Providence Hospice of Seattle Foundation’s 2013 annual fund raising event, and other programs concerned with writing and spirituality. In Port Townsend, she hosts KPTZ’s radio program, “In Conversation with Sheila Bender: Discussions on Writing and the Writing Life.” Proceeds from her memoir help support the Seth Bender Memorial Camp Scholarship Fund at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. Sheila is the author of Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises To Heal Grief. You may read more of about Sheila’s books HERE. Visit her on Facebook: Writing It Real and A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief

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