Saturday, November 19, 2011



What is Grief Writing and Why it is useful:
Grief writing is a tool, one tool among many to use -
·      as a coping mechanism,
·      as a survival mechanism, 
·      as a release
·      as a celebration of a life lost or a trauma survived. 

It is a means of coming to terms with traumatic events – death, dying as with the eating, gradual death of cancer, loss, suicide, disappearance as when a loved one goes missing, injury and disablement.

It can be a path out of depression and through the ocean of seemingly insurmountable grief.

The saying ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ applies in all instances involving grief and trauma.  Sharing with someone you know and trust is important. If no access to such a person or to counseling is available, grief writing will help you exteriorise, unburden, cope.  

A bit about my own background and how writing has helped me:

My relationship as a child and young person with my mother was a role reversal. My mother suffered deep-seated depression caused by very severe, sustained sibling abuse, throughout her very traumatic childhood. At certain times of year, depression took over. I was confidante and comforter. This started when I was about 4 years old. Writing quickly became my survival tool. Who are you going to confide in when it is your mother who is the one heaping on the emotional and psychological burdens? I confided in prayers and in my writing.

“Mending Lucille”, my book that won the Crichton in 2009, grew partially out of my experiences with my own family. My mother never left physically, but from an emotional standpoint, from a mothering standpoint, she was never able to be there for me. My father tried but he had suffered too, a nervous breakdown after World War II that was directly related to his war time experiences as a bomber pilot and calculatingly self-obsessed parents who sent him to boarding school almost from the start of primary.

My first writings were plays that I put on with the neighbourhood children. Friends an relatives were the audience. Later came poetry, later still children’s books and books for education and, more recently, short stories. I am teaching myself script writing.

How to use Grief Writing:

1.                 Journaling –

Keys to get started -
·      Collage Key - Letting it go, letting it flow – cut words that relate to you, to your situation out of a magazine or newspaper. Take a large sheet of paper – butcher’s paper or newspaper off-cut and colour large blobs of colour/or paint/ or paste scraps of coloured paper. Paste the cut out words on the colour that matches for you. This is important - let your feelings dictate here, not your knowledge of the word, definitions of the word or anything else. For example – tears can be ‘red’ or ‘gray’ or ‘blue’ or ‘white’ or whatever colour speaks to you NOW as relating to that word.

·      Stream of Consciousness - With those words as stimuli, put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard with stream of consciousness writing. This means putting pen to paper and just writing  - all your feelings, thoughts, fears, doubts, memories. Do not worry about punctuation, spelling or grammar - just write. If writing is too daunting straight off, then speak your feelings into a recorder then transcribe.

Later, can be minutes to months later – go back, read it, punctuate, edit grammar. Then read it out loud or have someone close to you read it. This step helps place the anguish beyond you, outside of you, helps you to see where you are in the context of what you are experiencing with more clarity. It gives perspective, enables grater objectivity. It helps you see how far your have moved from hurt to healing.  It also acts as a reference point for further writing.

·      Memories & Memorabilia - Collect together memorabilia of your life as it was impacted by the person and / or event that is the focal point of your grief. Write down words that strongly connect you to the person/event. Write down words that describe those words.

Collect together memorabilia of anything ‘good’ / life affirming, anything that helped sustain you through the grieving process. Write down the words, descriptions of any images, that most strongly connect you to the person or event that is the source of your grief.

2.                 Affirmation –
Redo the stream of consciousness step with memorabilia around you and fresh in mind, then shape the resulting writing into a prose piece or poem. Turn it into a Poster Poem by illustrating it with photographs, craft work, collage or your own drawings.

Journal a piece that encapsulates where you are now and what lies ahead that you hope for. Thank those who have helped you survival thus far.

Keep all your poems or prose pieces together and periodically review them. This is your journey in writing.

3.                 Forgiveness

Forgive others their part objective or subjective; forgive yourself your part objective or subjective. Releasing yourself and others enables you to move on with your life, to move to the next stage of writing. This in NO WAY negates what has happened to cause your grief in the first place. This in NO way negates the  abuser’s culpability. This step will enable you to more effectively, one day, reach out and help others.

4.                 The Craft of Writing

Think of the sound words make and the images they evoke – words like ‘cut’, ‘hack’ are not gentle in sound or meaning. Words like ‘snow’ and ‘grass’ have a flow to them that suggests covering.

Try using poetic devices like onomatopoeia [sound echoing sense, e.g., feathery soft, the eider down settled] and simile [this is like that, e.g., fleece white as snow], metaphor [saying this is that, e.g., the gold-haired sun] or transferred epithet [giving human characteristics to inanimate  objects or nonhuman life forms e.g., the door stubbornly stuck fast] in your writing to add impact. 

Use haiku – the traditional three-line Japanese verse form of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables - to tighten and focus your expression. Not one word is wasted in haiku.

Read what you have written out loud. Your ear will sense where the flow of your writing needs to be smoothed further or perhaps to be interrupted, punctuated to create shorter sentences for added dramatic effect.

Collect your writings together into a folder and  desktop them into a keepsake booklet.  Microsoft Publisher, Open Office drawing; Star Office Presentation; or Swift Printfolio  or PageMaker are all  options if you have a computer. Illustrate your writings with memorabilia, photographs, sketches, snippets from  magazines and newspapers, cards and so on.

Two examples from my own writing – my eldest son lost three friends within 18 months in horror road crashes.

Field Surgeon Remembering, [in Small Packages]

From his garden, he hears young men prowl in their cars,
Arms captured in a circling crush,
Hears their music blasting,
Down the stethoscope the beat is strong.
They U with screaming rubber.
He begins again, the third time tonight, the needle circling.
The metal cut deep in. The wound is sutured over staying the scar.

He wonders, from his garden, if the tank tracks are
Still there, snailing among the rosy flesh.
He remembers the bodies and how he stitched
Deliberate tank tracks across the skin,
The needle circling, the thread drawing torn flesh together.
He thinks, “there is no perfect rose.”

Slaughter House Road   by J.R.McRae [in Speed Poets]

Ten miles down
Slaughterhouse Road,
A cemetery -
Three crosses with their plastic flowers
On the home run.

The steering wheel
Crushing his sternum to spine,

With glass shards 
Through her jugular,

And little Daisy,
Three meters into the tall grass,
Dying for 24 hours before

On his way home,
Saw the wreck
And called 000 too late.

Joe's wife, Amelia,
Put the crosses there
For pity's sake.

Joe put the flowers
From the refectory
At the Slaughterhouse.

My websites: 

Some examples – Journal writing

Some web examples of Grief Writing/blogging

Further Reading:
·      Karen O. Johnson, Griefabet – a book of  survival and coping strategies – wise, ‘wonder’ full, whimsical and life affirming  - small tactics to keep you going.
·      Madelaine Tasky Sharples,  Leaving the Hall Light On - a family’s  journey back after the suicide of  a severely bipolar son/brother
·      Jessica Bell, Twisted Velvet Chains  - a chronicling of a daughter’s experience growing up with a suicidal, bipolar mother.
·      Shirley Pitcher, Conversations with Teddy – first in a series of memoirs about surviving an abusive childhood.
·      John Knight, “Letters from the Asylum” – poems from a poet who fought bipolar all his life.
·      Les Murray, Killing the Black Dog – the poet’s account of struggling with depression lifelong and poems specially selected by the poet.

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