How writing with others saved me
It's a story I'm learning to tell more often. It felt very private at first. The first thing you should know is that in 1997 we had twins—born ten weeks early. They were tiny. They came into the world during a dramatic emergency c-section, after a difficult pregnancy. One learned to eat, hold in body heat, and began to grow, despite a series of complications. But our Jack was sick from the start, with an infection that overwhelmed his premature immune system. He lived for four short-long days. He never nursed, or cried. There is just one photo with his eyes open, before the drugs and machines took over. I only got to hold him at the end.
I didn't know how to grieve. Not with another newborn who needed oxygen and monitors and the NICU for weeks. Despite being a pastor, married to another pastor, grief was a mystery to me. I knew how to sit with grieving folks, and pronounce words of resurrection hope at bedsides and funerals, but I was stuck in my own grief, and didn't even know it. I kept busy. For five years, I mothered our preemie, and a healthy daughter. I worked and preached and parented. But inside something was frozen.
In 2002, I happened to see a newspaper ad (remember printed newspapers?) for a one-day writing workshop for bereaved mothers. It was sponsored by the local Hospice agency, and would be led by Carol Henderson, a writer and bereaved mother herself. I had never found my place in a grief support group. I had been to one local group meeting for parents who had lost children, and never went back. Not my thing, or not the right time. But writing somehow sounded safer. Maybe I could keep my words and my grief to myself. So I went.
In a freezing classroom at Salem College, I sat around a conference table with 14 women, and we wrote about our children. I wrote about Jack's little hat. Someone else wrote about her daughter's shoes. With gentle prompts from Carol, we wrote and then we shared some of what we had written. Out loud. With people who got it. Grief on a page, and read aloud, is grief that isn't bottled up. I had just found a way to thaw. Thirteen of us have kept writing together, and we've done so for the last 19 years. Writing with them saved me. Saved me from never dealing with the frozen grief I carried around. Saved me from never finding words, or any semblance of meaning out of what I was carrying. Saved me to be able to write about love, loss, joy, and hope. To feel love, loss, joy, and hope. To give a voice to what before had been silent in me. Most of the writing is scribbles on pages of composition notebooks. Most wasn't written to be shared beyond the group gathered. What does merit sharing is how writing in company with others saved me, and it might save you too.
We all carry unspoken grief inside us. We also carry missed opportunities for noticing tomatoes ripening, and gratitude for new pencils and old dogs, and making meaning out of the everyday. Collectively, we've been through such trauma and loss, and are carrying heavy loads of fear, rage at injustice, and the deep need for hope, on top of our individual stuff. If your 2020-21 has been like mine, tears hover close to the surface some days.
Frederick Buechner says:
“You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it…. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”
Frederick Buechner, https://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2021/9/4/tears
Where I go next is to Red Cloud, Nebraska. Next week I'll be with my writing group again, after a lengthy pandemic separation, and the death of one of our own. There will be tears, good food, some walking and card playing, and—always—writing in company. Paying attention, writing it down. Writing keeps saving me, over and over again. Thanks be to God.
Find out more about my writing group and the book we've written and work we do helping others heal here: Farther Along.