October 2019 marks the 60th anniversary of CRUSE bereavement counselling being established by a social worker, to provide support to those who have suffered loss and struggled to come to terms with it. The grieving process can become complicated, leaving unanswered questions where we’re unable to make meaning from loss that may have been sudden or unexpected, and feels traumatic and unjust. Everything we thought we knew about the world is rocked, and we may feel shell-shocked which is compounded by how unpredictable and cruel life can be.
How can we make meaning from something that seems so nonsensical and painful? Telling our stories by getting them down on paper can help us to process our grief, expressing words that might feel unspeakable, but which tend to go round and round in our minds. The psychologist Professor Bob Neimeyer says that expressing the unthinkable can help us to live with our loss rather than being tormented by it: ‘The key is to help people tell a story in a restorative manner – one that lets them put together the pieces of what happened’. This can involve a repetitive going over events leading up to or surrounding the death of a love one – perhaps recalling seemingly insignificant details, dwelling on reactions to events, and associated emotions. The aim is to take all these scattered story pieces and record them through putting pen to paper.
The writing process in itself can be calming and meditative, a slowing down that can support these thoughts – in being put to paper – becoming less unspeakable and overwhelming. He believes that the ‘restorative retelling, as opposed to merely ruminating about what has happened, involves a self-compassionate search for ways to revise the story of our changed lives, rather than simply repeating it. Rebuilding means paying close attention to what we feel and what we need, and then taking intentional steps to fulfil these needs in new ways.’
In her book ‘A Year of Magical Thinking’, writer Joan Didion recalls the sudden death of her husband when they are together in their apartment. Much of her ensuing writing charts a need to go over and over certain events in the minutes and hours surrounding his death, trying to find a way of understanding and accepting what feels impossible. Her candid reflections reveal the ‘magical thinking’ of her refusal to give his shoes away, in some kind of hope that a mistake has been made and he may return, needing them.
In his article on bereavement on the website ‘Final Choices’, counsellor Peter Pitcher quotes: ‘the only cure for grief is to grieve’. Writing about our losses can help us to face the unfaceable and perhaps say what we might not be able to say out-loud. Peter observes that many people seem afraid of their feelings; men in particular are taught to be strong, and not cry. Our friends and family members are often awkward around us and struggle to know what to say – there’s a feeling that it’s best to avoid speaking directly about a loss, but euphemisms such as saying someone has ‘passed’ do not support the bereaved in struggling to come to terms with the reality of loss.
The poet Wordsworth said: Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart’. Grief is a normal response to the pain of loss that comes with having loved, and something that we will all have to face. Taking up a pen and writing down what we might be feeling, or what we find it impossible to say feels like a good place to start.