Writing Through Grief

My mother died last month. Her death was long anticipated and when it finally came, something of a relief. But losing a parent is one of life’s great transitions, moving the next generation closer to the front line of death. As expected as my mom’s death was, it also caused my universe to wobble. In order to hold on and begin working my way through a grief I expect to accompany me the rest of my life, I started doing what I always do to help me understand myself and my place in the universe: I wrote.

I’m not just talking about my journal, which I’ve been keeping since I was nine and which has been a companion for this long, arduous journey of my mother’s decline. I’m talking about the writing that accompanies a death, and that has allowed me a formal, disciplined way to organize my experience.

First, I wrote my mother’s obituary. I drafted it the first week of Mom’s final decline, when hospice took over. Two weeks later, I looked up the few facts about which I’d been unsure, and the day after she passed, when my oldest brother asked if I would write the obit, I was able to zap it to him via email.

I was enormously pleased that my oldest brother acknowledged me as a writer, relied on my services at my family’s time of need. After reading what I’d written, this brother wrote back saying, “This is great!” Now that Mom is gone, relationships with my siblings have become even more important, and this accolade from my oldest brother affirmed my sense of belonging to this band of brothers who tortured me through childhood, but whom I now hold dear.

The second writing task was the memorial service, which I organized. I solicited stories of remembrance, organized them so they had a narrative arc, and wrote a prologue and epilogue, giving the entire service a shape. My youngest brother, a playwright and filmmaker, gave me some directorial advice that added an element of bittersweet humor to the event. Laughter is good medicine, even – especially – in the face of death.

Next, I thought about my mother’s journey from octogenarian skier just seven years ago, to a human husk ravaged by dementia, leaving her without language, memory or mobility. It’s a grim fate, though not uncommon. Five million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease, which is only one of several kinds of dementia. Dementia is predicted to reach epidemic proportions worldwide by 2050 – by which time I’ll probably have it, if I’m still alive. So I wrote my monthly column for the local paper about how my family coped with my mother’s final year of care, figuring my story probably isn’t that unique. Ironically, now that medicine can keep our bodies going so long, we have to decide how we want to live, which means we also have to consider how we want to die.

Now, I’m writing about how we write about death right here. And I doubt that I’m done yet. But for now – and for this blog – it seems important to restate the obvious: We writers have an obligation to articulate the truth as we see it, to say the hard things, to tell the stories that are sometimes painful, to point out the conundrums our culture has created, to confront our readers with our thoughts, so they can push against them and discover their own.

It’s a great responsibility, being a writer in this world. And for those of us for whom writing is as essential as breathing air, writing is also a great comfort, especially in the face of death.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator. She keeps bees and chickens in southern Vermont. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com.

48 thoughts on “Writing Through Grief

  1. Very beautiful, and wonderful that you and you family were able to do so much to create a fitting farewell to you mother’s earthly existence.
    My mom died three years ago, and the experience was just as you say. Although it was not unexpected, (she was 88 years old and had had some health problems) it still rocked my world.
    She and my dad, who passed away in 1999, had already planned their funerals and even written their obituaries except for a few final details. But I think my brothers and I may have missed out on something in not being involved in those things.
    I am writing too. Since my parents were part of the World War II generation, I am focusing on writing set in that time period. It seems to be a way to be closer to them, and to remember and honor them.

    • Kathleen,
      Thanks for your thoughts. Every one’s journey is different; that every one takes this journey is the same. I’m glad you’re writing about your folks.
      Peace, Deborah.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I have also found some outlet for grief and memory in writing about loss on my blog. I’ve written about my dad and my grandmother, two very important people in my life, both lost to me and my family in the past few years. Somehow it did help me to write about memories of them, the relationships, and the resonance of loss. I don’t know that writing is as essential as air to me, but it is a useful filter, and a way to share. ~ Sheila

  3. In March my uncle died – the Patriarch of the family – very much a father figure. I wrote a poem that I read at his funeral that spoke of familiar memories including the sharing of music and family gatherings and ice cream excursions. People laughed and cried when I read the poem and it helped to reminisce together. Goodbyes are difficult. Writing about them is difficult.
    Neither can be avoided if you are a writer. My greatest sympathies are extended to you and your family. Your mother gave you plenty to write about, and with each nugget you use, directly or indirectly, you will honor her.

    • Laura,
      Thank you for your condolences – and for sharing your experiences of writing and reading around grief.
      All best, Deborah.

  4. Appreciate your thoughtful words. I can still recall my astonishment when I realized I had become the matriarch of our family. My oldest son died unexpectedly two years ago and his wife encouraged me to participate in the final farewell. I have a sister in final stages of Alzheimer’s and can relate to the anguish of seeing one you love deteriorate to a shell of the person you once knew. My father was also a victim of Alzheimer’s and I collected a few anecdotal stories I recall from those declining years into a book entitled Walk In His Shoes.
    I agree. We, as writers, have a responsibility to record life as it happens to us and to those we know.

    • Gay,
      No question, when a parent dies, we move up the ladder, become matriarchs – and the last line of defense to the younger generation – usually. I’m so sorry about your son’s death, which must really turn the world upside down. I’m glad you find solace in writing and sharing your stories.
      All best, Deborah.

  5. Thank you for this post. I know that day will come for me and I don’t really look forward to it. I’m blessed to have mom healthy but dad is the one with dementia and I now live 3,000 miles away from him. I’ve already lost him in many ways.
    Thank you for the hope that I and my siblings might be closer one day. I miss them. And if you’re open to it, I’m sending virtual hugs along with my condolences.

    • Kelly,
      Thank you for the virtual hugs and condolences. Good luck with your journey, caring for your father and forging sustaining relationships with your siblings.
      All best, Deborah.

  6. Hi Deborah,
    This was beautiful. Thank you for sharing it. My mom has dementia and I hope I can traverse these next few years with the dignity and presence of mind that you have shown in your journey with your mom. I’m so sorry for your loss.


    • Diane,
      Thanks for your kind words. It’s because my story is not unusual that I feel compelled to tell it. Many of our generation are dealing with dementia – which is growing into an epidemic, worldwide. But each of us has a unique story within the larger trend. Good luck with your journey.
      Peace, Deborah.

  7. Thank-you for sharing your journey especially so soon after your loss. I also wrote stories about my grandparents as part of a grieving process. In some ways this is what fuels some the stories that I write on my blog. You have expressed it beautifully. It is a responsibility. It is also a gift not only to those we know and love, but also to ourselves.

    • Cathy,
      Humans are storytellers; it’s part of our DNA.
      Thanks for reading the blog and your kind words. Keep writing!

  8. “We writers have an obligation to articulate the truth as we see it, to say the hard things, to tell the stories that are sometimes painful, to point out the conundrums our culture has created, to confront our readers with our thoughts, so they can push against them and discover their own.”—I absolutely LOVE this! Would you mind if I shared it on my blog?

  9. This is a lovely tribute to your mother, and to her daughter who can record the details with love and attention to detail.
    I lost my dad almost four years ago to Alzheimer’s, and now my 94-year-old mother is fading away with advanced dementia, so I read your account with hope that the final stages can, indeed, be written with honesty and beauty. Thank you for proving that it can be done.

    • Marilyn,
      Thanks for your kind words. I wish you strength, love, compassion as you cope with your mom’s fade – and the words to process the complex grief that such a decline engenders.
      All best, Deborah.

  10. my heart aches for you and you have written a believe memory of your mother. My mother too suffers from Alzheimer’s and is only weeks away from death. I choose not to see her as I want to remember her as my mother, not a stranger ravaged by Alzheimer’s. Blessings bestowed.

  11. Deborah, this is such a touching piece. Thank you for writing it. I’m caring for my mom at the moment–she’s 80 and still doing fine, but I find that I’m grieving in advance as I anticipate losing her, despite the fact that caring for her is a challenge. You were brave to write this, and you have a wonderful way of describing the healing power of writing.

    • Holly,
      As you can see from all the comments here, this piece has touched a lot of people. Any courage it took to write is amply supported by such comments.
      I hope taking care of your mom is good for both of you; all my reading and experience emphasized the importance of making sure the caregivers are cared for as well.
      Thanks for writing. Be well. – Deborah.

  12. Good morning, Deborah~

    Your piece spoke to me because of my father’s death. His was unexpected, so the blow was tremendous. I couldn’t comprehend such an incredible loss and, two years later, I am still trying to adjust to the fact that my wonderful Dad is dead. It does not seem possible.

    And like you writing about your Mom’s passing, I wrote furiously about my father’s death. It was healing to let it pour from my pen, all the various feelings and thoughts and emotions that coursed through my body and mind. In a way it was healing, and a release, and I continue to write short pieces here and there about Dad, whenever his visage pops into my head.

    Writing is indeed a ‘great comfort’, even within the specter of death, and you wrote both eloquently and beautifully. I am sorry for your loss, and I admire your courage and words in honor of your dear departed mom.

    May fond memories of your mother bring more superb passages to your work. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    warm wishes,

    • Paul,
      Each loss is as unique as each life, isn’t it? And each brings its own set of repercussions. I can’t imagine losing a parent suddenly, and being reminded that others do helps put the frustrations of having parents who become elderly in perspective. My mom lived to 87, and my Dad is still alive.
      I’m glad that writing helps.
      Thanks for reading the blog and posting your comments. Best, Deborah.

  13. When my mother dies, my brother arranged to have a viewing at the funeral home. No service, no one to speak on her behalf. That was unacceptable to me, so I wrote and officiated her eulogy. It was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do, but the writing I had to do was very cathartic. When I let the emotions flow out of me in a controlled way through my pen onto paper, that creative outlet helped me heal in a way that words fall short when trying to describe it.

    • Interesting. My dad was clear he didn’t want a service of any kind, and we four were equally clear that we did. So we did. And he came. He imagined a traditional, religious, event, but that’s not what we did: just stories. For the living.
      You are very brave to do that all by yourself. I’m so glad I had my brothers with me.
      Thanks for writing. Best, Deborah.

  14. Totallt beautiful x sorry for your loss. It was my mum’s anniversary yesterday and that is another milestone that I wrote about. It is a great outlet for our emotions. You write beautifully. I am a real amateur but working hard to improve!

  15. life is a game of relief and grief —— lucky are the ones who have their friends’ shoulder to share their grief——— thanks for sharing. See you are so lucky —- friends around the globe are there for you in time when you need most 🙂
    wish your dear one’s soul to rest in best of best heaven amen

  16. Pingback: Death and dealing with it… « agreenmoon

  17. This was so beautifully written and such a tribute to your mother.

    As the oldest child, I, too wrote the eulogy for my father’s surprising well attended funeral. It concentrated on the happier moments we shared and how we were able to survive some of life’s more challenging moments. A barely known friend of my father’s volunteered to read it for us because neither my brothers nor I could. It was so tenderly spoken and expressed, there was not a dry eye in the room. After the funeral was over, many people asked who wrote that beautiful eulogy.

    That was twelve years ago and I still get a twinkle in my eye knowing he would have been proud of that eulogy as we were so proud of him.



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