How to Write Through Grief

Hi friends.

We are approaching an anniversary soon. A year of the pandemic. These anniversaries force us to remember the pain as we experienced it. It wasn’t so swift, this pain. It wasn’t as if a limb snapped and then we spent a few months healing from it. The pain is still ongoing. We are not even in the process of recovering yet. We are still making little adjustments every day, consciously or not. Still, a cycle of 365 days will have been completed. It is to be noted. This anniversary may impact your work in some way or another but if you are prepared for it or at least can acknowledge it, I think that you can find your way through it.  

Sometimes in the comments section of this newsletter I ask for people to pose questions to me about writing. A while ago someone asked me how to write through grief, and though I didn’t know how to answer it at the time, of course those words touched me — and stuck with me. Inherent in that question was the grief of the person asking it, although they never described their particular sadness or tragedy. But there was a hopefulness in asking it, too, I felt. When we can admit what we need, there is hope. When we can ask the question, we usually believe there is a solution.

I will preface this by saying: What do I know about grief anyway? Bad things have happened to me, but I have recovered. I am safe and healthy. I do live in this America, where I stand as a witness to awful, deplorable acts happening to others, crimes against humanity every day. And all this new kind of sickness this year. For this I feel grief, I can grieve for others, but my sorrow is often secondary; my sorrow is as a witness, only. I grieve, but also, I am fine. I can, mostly, put the pain aside when I need.

So, what do I know of this? How do I answer it?

I have been trying to think of times when I was sad, and I wrote through it. (This is not actually a fun exercise, but for you, my friends, I do it.) When I have had heartbreak or loss. When people have been cruel to me. Insults leave a mark. When I have had physical injuries. Just those broken days.

The thing is, writing is often the way I cheer myself up; that is my relationship with it. It is frequently playtime for me. When I have been at my saddest, I still somehow have managed to write. On a dark day, I will absolutely have to journal first to get my feelings down. I cannot proceed with my projects without it. A commitment of time to processing my feelings before I get to the work of the day. A commitment to the pure self, before I tend to the artist part of that self.

There are some things I read here and there that also give me a place to put or process my feelings. Books of poetry are helpful, particularly by poets in their later years, who have lived through enough already that they can look back at life in wisdom. I find the words of Lucille Clifton a great source of strength, even as she processes sadness. In this year of sitting and eating, I especially found comfort in this poem. Loving yourself for all of yourself.

And on Sunday mornings this past year I often read a page or two from Epictetus’s The Art of Living. I found it helpful because so much of it is about how to be in this world, how to live, how to be strong and clear-headed, how to be virtuous, how to be happy. (That Epictetus was one of our first motivational speakers, in my opinion.) The first line of advice: “Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not.” The answers in these pages sometimes feel overly simplistic, but that can be quite soothing. And my brain has needed soothing in order to proceed with my work.

I have known a few writers who were unable to work for an extended period of time after the loss of a parent. It sounded to me like the healing of a broken bone, the way they described it. I couldn’t until I could. And that always takes as long as it takes. Not a helpful answer, perhaps. Time is vague, more so lately. (Although better to have time than not, I suppose.) I don’t want to say the work doesn’t matter, because I know how important it is to you all, as it is to me, too. But you won’t be able to work effectively, until you are healed and ready.

I suppose this is the most I can offer: You will come out the other side of it, eventually. You have hope that you will, and so I, too, believe it possible. You will tend to yourself as you need. You will write nothing for a while, and then a little bit and then all of a sudden more than you have in a long time. And on that day, you will be filled with a specific kind of joy because you will feel like your former self again but also a little different, too, older and wiser and connected to yourself in a special way. You will see yourself as something new. Something new to love.


You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). Last week I donated to Southern Solidarity and New Orleans Women & Children’s Shelter.