Windswept Terrain: Finding a Way to Write About Grief
March 11, 2019 § 32 Comments
By D.A. Hickman
Vast and unthinkable. Silent and timeless. A windswept terrain. This is grief. It’s also the Dakota prairie I grew up with. But I wasn’t fully aware of this curious pairing until I lost my son to suicide. When the final moment came, he’d already been plagued for years by treacherous life and death issues. Only 27, he was tired. We were tired. Yet, the end had come when least expected.
Beginning a quest for deeper understanding of everything that had transpired, I realized I would have to find the stamina, the steadiness, to write a memoir about the trauma—anguish, confusion, and isolation—of those years. Yet, my thoughts were peppered with fear. Do I want to reveal his story to the world? Why? Will this honor his memory, help others, or simply turn into a lengthy exercise in writing?
Staying rational was impossible, and the paralyzing impact of unimaginable sorrow was an overwhelming new dynamic in my life. Only infrequently, could I access my intuition, and fully recognizing my profound yearning to explore the darkest corners of loss, took time. But Matthew’s death wasn’t going away. Writing or not writing wasn’t going to change this dreadfully challenging fact.
A year passed. An increasing number of insistent questions flowed into my awareness.
How could I effectively share my son’s life and loss in a world that seems hungry for happily-ever-after stories? Could I truly help others by surrendering to this arduous climb in a search for universal insights? Where would I begin? How long will it take? Where might I find useful feedback?
One question, in particular, hit me like an early-morning clap of thunder.
What is left to be said after death, when everyone has left the cemetery, gone home and mailed you a lovely sympathy card, and you feel more alone than ever before?
A deceptively simple-sounding question, it haunted me, dragged me around in an array of futile directions in search of a substantive answer that rang true. Surely, I reasoned, there was more to this story of life and loss than the standard, short-lived reactions. Lacking clarity and useful insights, I eventually realized the answer would have to be discovered en route. With a less-than-confident deep breath, I wrote a few exploratory lines. Pushing myself to confront the surreal nature of absence—its place within the story of existence—I sought a hidden truth.
Like a spiritual detective, I searched for understanding, rejecting the popularized, nearly trite, explanations that abound in our culture. I wasn’t buying any of this: “time will heal,” “he’s in a better place,” “death comes at any time,” or “you’ll feel better one day.”
My search evolved into seven years of work. Writing, editing, revising. The emotional strain was significant. Not only did I have to relive my son’s painful passing, somewhat stubbornly, I had to dig far beneath the surface for substance. Misconceptions about grief, cultural and societal expectations to “move on,” swirled in the air like autumn leaves sadly adrift on a bleak November day.
Maybe my question is unanswerable. Maybe my search is just a senseless obsession.
Some have asked me where I found the courage. How did I persist? Perhaps it helped that I was 52 when faced with my son’s suicide, an ending that seemed to stem from an inability to beat addiction and depression. Not terribly surprising given our culture’s role in subtly pointing so many people in the direction of dangerous escape routes from whatever troubles them. So while a degree of maturity probably generated strength and persistence, something else helped me.
Growing up on the prairie, I’d grown accustomed to being confronted by a vast terrain—a tireless sky, a remote and worn landscape offering the seldom tree, vigorous winds—since my earliest days. And, finally, as I pushed through the heavy fog of doubt, I began to detect a subtle comfort. Familiar, even known and trusted. Though intensely alone at the keyboard, my affection for the vibrant spirit of the prairie—rolling, unencumbered spaces—helped me access the emotional energy I needed to survive the depth of my grief and questioning.
I felt empty and shattered in a dozen ways, but also knew firsthand the steady heartbeat of nature. The soothing power of place. Childhood memories hummed in my mind like intrepid soldiers, and I managed to recall a seamless prairie sky well above the fray.
Remembering all of this helped me tap into the past to reveal the present. It really does take a certain amount of daring to probe a harsh, bewildering reality in a quest for new insights and equanimity. As authors working on seriously challenging projects, we need support wherever we can find it. But as I penetrated the bleak silence of the moment, as chapters developed and my confidence began to return, I knew what was left to be said after everyone had gone, and I was alone as never before. Even living with my husband and comforting pets, Noah and Lola, even with kind co-workers, friends, and extended family, I was remarkably alone. Regardless of who or how many may surround us, grief is inherently personal. But my question had an answer.
Life is always about the basics. Nothing more, nothing less. Certainly we manage to complicate things as we grow and evolve, yet, ultimately, we return to the beginning once more. As I worked to transcend my own suffering, my writing sustained me, but it wasn’t therapeutic as many believe. Rather, my journey was a befuddled inner climb lacking precision or dignity; it was my way of learning how to peacefully return to the basics of life to begin again. And again. This is the only magic, the only way back.
D.A. (Daisy) Hickman, an avid student of culture and society, writes to connect more deeply to the complexities of the human condition. Her 2016 memoir, The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone, followed a first book from William Morrow about growing up “prairie-wise” (Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place, second edition, 2014). Also a poet, Hickman recently published Ancients of the Earth: Poems of Time. “Too often,” she notes, “we manage to give our lives to time, but most would agree, it’s the wrong emphasis.” For Richard Gilbert’s in-depth interview with the author, see “We Need Memoir“. Hickman studied sociology (M.S.) at Iowa State University, legal studies (B.A.) at Stephens College; her website, a sunny, creative space for kindred spirits, is at SunnyRoomStudio.com. At work on new nonfiction and poetry, Hickman lives in Brookings, a small college town in eastern South Dakota, with her husband and spirited schnauzers, Hannah and Georgia.