By Wendy Brown-Báez
During times when we are facing profound loss and grief, our writing practice may be a way to cope or we may suddenly feel speechless with shock. One example of how writing can help during a crisis is illustrated by Isabel Allende picking up her pen after her daughter fell into a coma. Allende determinedly wrote while keeping vigil at her unconscious daughter’s side as a way to keep hope alive. Paula only lived for a year, but the writing turned into an extraordinary autobiography of Allende’s family living under Chilean dictatorship. Allende says Paula has received more responses from readers than any of her other books. You can read more here: https://www.isabelallende.com/en/book/paula/summary
My robust writing practice spans over thirty years, including publication of prose and poetry in literary journals and two books of poetry. I facilitate writing workshops in community spaces such as libraries, churches, healing centers, schools, and prisons. Writing for me is not only a way to process turbulent emotions and a tool for healing but it is my spiritual practice as I connect to guidance from within.
My novel had just been released when my mom told me of her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Fortunately the launch was already in motion. After the last scheduled reading, I flew to Pennsylvania to care for Mom so she could die at home. When I first arrived, she picked me up at the train station, and we shopped for groceries. Within two weeks, the pain had escalated, and medication dosages were increased. There were many things I was ill prepared for, including my mom’s anger when her body began to fail her.
Instead of pouring my heart out onto the page as I normally would, however, I found myself copying affirmations and aphorisms. My mother’s pain was hard to manage; the fentanyl patch meant to last for three days only kept pain at bay for one. Her agitation compelled me to check on her frequently. I felt suspended in space and time, breathing a wordless prayer. Despite her wishes to “get this over with,” ignoring the natural instinct toward survival was harder than I expected.
The week after her passing was filled with disposing of medication, doing laundry, sorting through paperwork, throwing away personal items in preparation for selling the house, packing and shipping items I wanted to keep, and numerous phone calls about my dad, living in a personal care home. My mom did not want any kind of memorial, but my brothers, my sister-in-law, Mom’s best friend, and I went out for dinner and shared stories. My dad would pass six weeks later.
I found myself extremely busy when I returned to Minnesota. I was immersed in revising my own work and editing the work of others and the logical part of my brain dominated my imagination. My writing felt stalled until one day I began with the prompt “When my mother was dying…” Like a steam valve on a pressure cooker, it let out some of the anguish.
We have learned that writing about difficult life events helps us cope, and self-reflective, intuitive writing can help us heal. Studies have found that writing about traumatic, stressful, or emotional events can improve physical and mental health. Those who wrote about difficult life events experienced such benefits as fewer stress-related visits to the doctor, improved mood, and a feeling of greater psychological well-being (Baikie and Wilhelm).
As writer Tara DaPra eloquently observes in her essay “Writing Memoir and Writing for Therapy:” “Perhaps the only recompense for tragedy—for death and loss of innocence—is the chance to create some measure of beauty. The marvel of a well-crafted sentence—finding just the right diction and syntax—is a small triumph over pain, a way to create order in the world.”
TIPS FOR WRITING ABOUT LOSS AND GRIEF
1. Reflect on your loss in a journal, allowing the memories
and feelings to flow without censoring or organizing
2. Write letters to loved ones: this keeps the connection
alive for us and may uncover memories we have
forgotten. Use the prompt: I never got to tell you or
what I want to say to you.
3. Write about what unexpected blessings have come to
you out of the experience of loss: kindness from
strangers, assistance from friends, a moving moment.
For example, my high school friend Gaile Morrison and
I had reconnected via Facebook the previous year. She
took me out to lunch and to run errands but above
and beyond, she came at 6 a.m. to drive me to the train
station when it was time to leave, hot coffee in hand.
4. Write about personality traits you have inherited. My
partner who passed in 2002 was very gregarious. Now
I smile at strangers, something I never would have
5. Write about how grief has changed you. Who are you
now? Use prompts: What gives me strength, what is
rebirthed in me, and what I don’t regret.
6. You may want to write short reflections and post
them on Facebook or send to friends and family
through email. They may develop into a memoir or
I sometimes use this writing prompt: What I would never write about. My answer was always my childhood. It wasn’t as interesting as my wild adventures: foreign travels, painful betrayals, passionate love affairs. This has changed since the deaths of my parents. I find solace and relief in writing about our final days together. Here is my first paragraph of a story I am working on:
The last time my mom gets dressed up is the day she will go into hospice’s in-patient unit. At age 82, she wears colorful tops and dark slacks with shoes in matching colors. Despite the plush wall-to-wall carpets, despite the fact that we are going nowhere now that she has to use a walker, she always wears something on her feet. I also find out that she won’t wear denim unless it is ironed. When I ask her what she wants to wear this morning, she says, “Sparkles.” That’s my mom. Sequined blouses and ironed jeans and turquoise-trimmed sandals. Before the hospice nurse arrives, she puts on lipstick. “So I won’t scare her,” she jokes.
Even in this short paragraph, Mom is vivid and real to me; I can hear her voice. I learned more about my mom in those eight weeks than in the past 64 years. She passed on to me the search for beauty, the admiration of integrity, the determination to be independent. As I write my reflections in my journal or create a list poem with the images of what I lost and what I get to keep, I am saying thank you and I am also saying good-bye.
Wendy Brown-Báez (www.wendybrownbaez.com) is the author of the novel Catch a Dream, poetry books Ceremonies of the Spirit and transparencies of light. Her poetry and prose appear widely in literary journals and anthologies, such as Borderlands, The Litchfield Review, Mizna, Minnetonka Review, Wising Up Press, The Feminine Collective, Poets & Writers, Talking Writing, Water~Stone Review, Peregrine and Tiferet. Wendy was awarded McKnight and MN State Arts Board grants to teach writing in non-profits. She teaches creative writing and memoir in community spaces such as schools, libraries, cafes, prisons, healing centers, churches, women’s retreats, yoga studios, and arts organizations.