Writing the Waves of Grief

Image by Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash

As an aspiring writer in my 20s, I used to scrawl out a few pages in my journal every morning. Journaling helped me process my life, clear the top layer of sludge and complaints from my brain, and maintain a record of moments I’d otherwise forget.

But when my brother died unexpectedly when I was 24, I dropped my pen. My journal lay closed, unfinished. I couldn’t bring myself to commit the words to the page: my brother is dead from heroin. Writing what had happened to him — to our family — felt too permanent, too enormous to fit within the narrow, neutral pages of a composition book.

Instead, in those early months of shock and grief, I wrote letters to my brother.

These letters felt instinctual, almost animal. The tug to write to him appeared within the first days of learning of his death. Writing letters connected me to my gone brother, who suddenly seemed to be both nowhere and everywhere. In these letters, I could bled my thoughts and feelings, the zigzag nature of early grief, the cacophony of overwhelming thoughts and emotions that arise when our mind attempts to process a huge absence. They spilled from me as easily as I’d spoken to him when he was alive — sometimes I joked and teased. Occasionally, I raged, asking him how he could have taken such a risk. Mostly, my words were desperate, shimmering with pain and unanswerable questions: Where was my brother now? Did it hurt to die? Would I ever not feel shattered? Would our parents survive this terrible loss, or would I lose them, too?

The letters also became a way to capture memories. Early grief, at least in my experience, brings a gush of images to the surface. I wrote things down in those letters that now, more than 20 years later, would’ve long escaped my memory. I’m grateful for those slivers of my brother I captured, precious tiles from the mosaic of his too-brief life.

Grief often feels completely non-linear. We don’t tend to tidily glide through stages of loss. Instead, we often experience a collage of emotions and thoughts. Anger geysers up out of nowhere. Other times we bargain, pleading with the universe to return our loved one, even as we know their body is dead, irreversible. We replay moments on the wide, warped screens of our minds, rewinding, imagining do-overs, if-onlys.

Recovering from intense grief takes much longer than most of us would like — death disrupts our lives immensely, leeching into every cranny. Our attention spans often shrink. We may become careless, forgetful, foggy-brained. Time both constricts and lengthens — it can feel simultaneously like the person we lost died just yesterday and also like it’s been years. Our emotions are unpredictable, forceful, frenetic.

Writing can be a powerful practice during periods of intense grief. Not only does it allow us a way to process our feelings, as Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a pioneer researcher in the area of expressive writing as a therapeutic tool, has proven, it can even provide health benefits.

If that wasn’t enough, writing also creates a tangible documentation of our grief journey.

In the first months and years after losing my brother, I often felt stuck, pinned somewhere between a perpetual adolescence and young adulthood. When, I wondered, would life get easier? Would I ever fully launch my life?

But when I read through my earlier letters to my brother, so coated in pain and shock, I could see that though I sometimes felt like I was treading quicksand, I was actually moving through something. I didn’t feel quite as raw. My body wasn’t constantly cold. I could sleep. Days passed in which I didn’t cry, or only cried once.

In the early months after my brother’s death, I “met” another young woman whose brother had just died via a grief chatroom (this was the late 1990s). We exchanged email addresses, and began writing each other long emails almost daily. From the outside, our lives looked very divergent — she was a young mom in the thick of raising children, while I was single and had just moved back in with my parents. But our feelings about losing our brothers connected us in a way that I didn’t have with friends I’d known for my entire life. To this day, my grief pen pal and I remain connected.

Grieving can feel like living in an alternate reality where your life has stopped, while the world around you keeps spinning. Connecting with others can make the experience less lonely. Social media now makes it easy to find others who are grieving, and for many, sharing snippets of our stories can be therapeutic.

Grief remains a taboo subject in western culture. For those of us willing to be vulnerable, we might serve as a beacon for others wandering through the wilderness of loss. Side effects of grief may include denial, numbness, insomnia, bursts of rage, loss of interest in things that once delighted you, chilled extremities, inappropriate humor, searching for signs, the strong suspicion that you’re losing your mind.

By naming and normalizing what our grief feels like, we let others know that though loss is lonely, we are not alone.

Writer on sibling loss, grief, parenting, wellness and mental health. Voracious reader. https://linktr.ee/LynnShattuck

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