On Writing Back From Grief

February 6, 2020 § 33 Comments

pagliaruloBy Rae Pagliarulo

“I miss the joy of words,” I said to my coworker through a mouthful of potato chips while trying to ignore the ping of my inbox. “I miss synonyms and antonyms and the thrill of reworking a sentence until it sounds like music.” I had been trying to write on my lunch break, and everything felt wrong. Nothing I wrote sounded like me. Well – not like the old me, anyway.

After years of writing for joy and pleasure and occasionally, publication, for the last 10 months, writing has meant one single, terrible thing – dealing with my grief.

My father – arguably the most (positively and negatively) influential person in my entire life – died unexpectedly in his sleep last May. He was only 65, so it was a shock. He was also recently retired, happier than he’d ever been, and finally getting used to sobriety, which had been a pretty bumpy ride for the first 9 years he had been doing it. He was, for all intents and purposes, the best he had ever been. And then he was gone.

Since then, when I write, it feels like this: I am a jug overflowing with shitty feelings, confusion, and pain. When my pen hits paper (or more often, my fingers hit keyboard), the little faucet on the jug is turned, and suddenly, all of the grief comes spilling out. It gets everywhere. There’s very little I can do to control the flow. The only thing I can do to regain a sense of control is to stop writing. Which I hate doing. Because I’m a writer.

When the mess comes out of me, it’s self-indulgent and disorganized and weird and full of convoluted allusions and references to things no one would understand. It’s basically a few steps below what my journal looked like in the 7th grade.

When I try to revise what I’ve written, dreaming perhaps of placing my poignant, heart-wrenching piece in a top-tier publication, and later, being asked to give a talk on grief at some exclusive writing retreat (hey, it could happen), it feels impossible. Like trying to put a person with no bones into a prom dress. (Wow. I can’t even come up with a good simile anymore.)

So now I’m left with these pages and pages of brain-dump. These floppy, uncooperative words that do no one any good, least of all me. Because I want them, more than anything, to serve a purpose. I want them to reach people, maybe even help people. I miss the craft. I miss the hunt for the perfect phrase. I miss the art of writing, and the pay-off when it’s really, really good.

I sit in coffee shops and stare at the blank screen of my laptop, the cursor blinking at me in Morse code – Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t sit here and whine about things you can’t change. Don’t feel a million feelings instead of finding meaning. Don’t forget what it feels like to create something good. Don’t let this grief last too much longer. Don’t let this year go by without a byline. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. 

For whatever reason, even though it’s only been 10 short months since this huge, life-changing loss, writing just to get the grief out of me – just to keep emptying that big, way-too-full jug over and over again – isn’t good enough. Perhaps what I need more than anything is a way to forgive myself for being full to the brim with this strange new sadness.

It’s not really an acute sadness, the kind that feels like a needle prick or a sharp pain. It’s dull, and it’s everywhere, and yes – it does leave room for other feelings, moments of happiness and enjoyment and delight. But underneath it all is this huge wave of – ugh. When I’m working, I rarely feel it. When I’m hanging out with my friends, I rarely feel it. I have moments of distraction, moments when I’m not just functioning, I’m doing really, really well. But the second I try to write – it’s all that exists. There is nothing else inside me.

I feel productive and useful when I write – specifically, when that writing is fit for public consumption. I assign a lot of personal value to that; meaning, the better my writing is, and the better received it is, the better I feel as a person. I know that I only became a good, useful writer because for years, I filled journal after journal with mindless immature dramatic drivel, the unvarnished messiness of my adolescent brain spilling out uncontrollably – so why now, when I have something legitimately difficult and complicated to work through, can I not give myself a break and just let it flow?

I don’t have an answer, unfortunately, but that’s okay. Through writing, I ask myself hard questions, and sometimes I don’t get to a satisfying end. Sometimes it’s just a way to scream out to the Universe, “Hey – what the hell is going on?!” I know that the Universe is not going to answer me. I do know, however, that the jug of grief inside of me will change shape and become more or less full with every passing day, and the only thing I can do at this point is keep turning the tap and hope for something beautiful to come.
Rae Pagliarulo is the flash nonfiction editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living in the fundraising and resource development sector. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.

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§ 33 Responses to On Writing Back From Grief

  • Best to you. My dad’s death ten years ago changed the way I wrote. It changed the way I looked at everything. My own writing became my way of coming to understand his life and what all that was left behind when it ended. We none truly ever die though. You may understand that now. Or, you may come to understand it soon enough. Grief is a fire, smoldering. Some days it’s hot to the touch and blazes. Other days it’s a wisp of smoke. Either way, keep writing, even it’s just a word here and a sentence there. It will help.

    • I am SO WITH YOU on the whole “writing as a way to understand his life” angle. I wrote about him constantly when he was alive, but now, the stakes have totally changed. It feels like I’m still learning about him every day. Wishing you well.

  • Julie McGue says:

    Most people do not die “the best they ever have been”. I admire your gift about writing about grief and the loss of your dad, but to remember your dad in such a positive manner is a desired way to go out.

    • On one hand, it was such a cosmic wedgie – really, he’s awesome, and NOW he leaves?! – but you’re right. It was a blessing that he left the party on such a high note. It’s rare and at the end of the day, I’m grateful.

  • This is beautiful. Thank you especially for “the only thing I can do at this point is keep turning the tap and hope for something beautiful to come.”

    My father also died at 65, and it was weeks before I was driving to work, thought “I’ll have to ask Daddy about that,” pulled over and finally sobbed. I was the member of my immediate family who carried on, who signed papers and dealt with his ashes. Breaking down was not in the program. Almost a year after my mother died at 82, I realized I was still trying to write the same short story, an idea I’d had for a long time. I’d lost all sense of humor during her years of illness, and though I completed my MFA, after her death I stopped writing. A friend urged me to begin a blog, and that helped.

    • It’s so amazing that you found your way back. I am just like you – the family member who gets things done and keeps things together. For a long time, I couldn’t even believe he was gone. That’s how deep into survival mode I was. But eventually, that moment in the car happens, and it all comes down.

  • kperrymn says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. In doing so, you have offered solidarity to many who ask themselves the same questions, who, like you, are waiting for the jug of grief inside them to change shape. I found your list of “don’ts” touching and heartbreaking, your resolve to keep turning on the tap inspirational.

  • Mark Liebenow says:

    The death of someone close to us is enormous, and the grief is overwhelming. It’s like finding ourselves treading water in an ocean, or hiking through a mountain range, and trying to write about everything swirling around us. We have so many emotions, and this is such an important subject, that we are frustrated trying to write about it coherently and with the words that do it justice. As writers, we feel we should be able to find the words, but they don’t often come. You express this struggle well. It’s a reminder to all who write about grief to not give up trying. We figure this out by writing bird by bird. Thank you for this, Rae.

    • I think I may have to go back and read that entire book again, Mark. Anne Lamott always knows what to say, doesn’t she?

      • Mark Liebenow says:

        It is one accomplishment to find the language capable of expressing our grief to ourselves. It is a second challenge to find the language to explain to other grievers, who know something of what we’ve gone through. It’s a third challenge, and one that I struggle with now, of explaining grief to someone who has never lost anyone close. It seems like a canyon separates us, one that they can’t truly comprehend. But compassion is the bridge that allows us to support each other. I lost my parents six months apart three years ago. I keep revising what I’ve written about them because I continue to understand more about them. My condolence to you, Rae, as you find your way.

  • sharono360 says:

    Love this piece. I can relate. I have many of those messy dramatic journals. Thanks for posting this!

  • Charly Borenstein-Regueira says:

    Finding my way to the page consistently has been a tremendous challenge since my son died of an accidental heroin overdose three years ago. Grief is a powerful force. I often wonder why I can’t “give myself a break and let it flow.” I think the answer is that it is hard, damn hard, to say goodbye to the ones we never believed we could live without. Rae, your words reach me and they help.

  • deemallon says:

    “Writing what needs to come up” is a good way to write. An honest way. The idea of praise or publication or even private assessments of the writing’s worth can all come later. My sister died at 64 this year and I wrote about her death (again) today in a class. I assumed people would be sick of hearing about her but the others were grateful and thanked me for sharing. When will I be “done”? I have no idea.

    • I’m so sorry you lost your sister. And I know the feeling – I’ve been writing about my dad since I COULD write. And still, no signs of stopping. You can’t fight city hall though, right?

  • Rae,
    Thank you for this. My father died 5 1/2 months ago–I had to stop and count–and I truly believe his final illness and death have changed me forever. I am different writer now, and that’s not necessarily bad. There have been times I feel like all I write about is grief. I write a lot that is not good writing, but it needs to come out. Thank you for putting into words what I have been feeling.

  • Thank you for sharing and I’m hopeful for you as you keep processing. I observed the 5th anniversary of my dad’s death earlier this week and have only, in the last year, been able to write about him and our relationship in a way fit for public consumption (in my writerly opinion – https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/289231/mourning-an-abusive-parent). It was both excruciating and a watershed. And, so helpful to others, truly. Good luck, Rae (my daughter’s name is Raya!).

    • I cannot WAIT to read this – I have a feeling I will be able to relate, big-time. So sorry for your loss and good for you for continuing to return to the page. It’s a good place to be.

  • Kristen Paulson-Nguyen says:

    Thank you for this piece. I’m sorry for your loss.

  • Just Me says:

    Hi, I know you don’t know me at all, but I feel like I could have written this myself. I too am in a very lonely place, despite having a new husband who was so great, he hugged away all of my pain, I told a very good friend and my son and wow. Lets just say now I am hated by everyone we know, most I have never met and especially his ex. I am being made to feel as if I stole the Queens husband and I assure you this man swore he was single and had nobody left anywhere he would have wanted to be with. I pray you find yourself soon. My loss was a fiance who had wanted to marry me when I became suddenly pregnant, he was just as surprised as me, we had been careful, turns out birth control is not my friend, and nobody else was either. He was an amazing daddy, he was a year into a divorce he said, and I was also going through one with a man who wouldn’t let me breathe. Kenny was angry and bitter he had warned me, I was shy and naive, I loved him so much it hurt to see him hold in his pain. I tried so hard to make him see how amazing he was. I think he got lost missing his babies. He wanted all of them home with him, he had built that space with help from her, for the two of them, it hurt me to feel like I was in the way, I wanted to set him free, but she had told him she did not want that dream he said. although we fought some, never did I stop loving him. I had considered moving out for a while because he was so unhappy and in pain from his wreck, I knew she was about to tell him something that was most likely going to make him kill himself or her, I had told the kids I would not tell him, I did not want to see the pain it was going to cause him. I was able to let him know just a day or so before that I would not leave him, I loved him and my son enough to make it work and I had meant it. The day he died I told him what he meant to me, how perfect he was for Joshua and myself. He had been a little off that morning after working so many days and hours, exhausted, thats an understatement. Normally he played with our son before work, but that day he said no, Joshua and I played instead. When he was leaving he held me for so much longer than usual, and first, then a goofy gesture, classic him, he hugged our son and told him he loved him, I walked him out with his stuff and an autograph he had gotten for a friend at works son, we said love you again, he said he would see us tonight. As he drove away in that green truck with the diesel engine it was as if I already knew he was gone forever, the day was just a blur, the sky was off, the air, the world just did not seem to be the same. My gut told me but I refused to believe it. I spoke to him once more when he said he was on the bridge headed to work. I told him I had gotten our son an appointment for his feet, they had been hurting him pretty bad he said. He said good, he would call me back when he got to the office and he could write it down. I said I loved him and to be safe, he said always as usual and he loved me too, and that was the very last time I ever heard his voice again alive. I still look to him every day for answers about my son, and although I know I was not doing it wrong, they have taken him from me and have me labeled as a mom who will never see him without supervision ever again. I am far from perfect, but I thought his daddy was and he had been the one who taught me how to be that little boys mommy/ I wish they would listen to me and let me show them how special Joe is when we have our children here. We had no questions, the kids just clicked and so did we. His daughter and my son had told us they knew we were gonna get married as soon as they saw us together. Joe and I had no clue, but when we did get married it was so simple, neither of us even asked the other, we just did it, and although it was so simple, it was the most beautiful wedding ever to me. he thought it was terrible that he had blown it. as if!!!!! a full special moon, the spot where we started amd his childhood friend, what else could a girl want. Look at him. Hes too perfect for me to ask for anything more. but I didnt know it would cost me my son and his little girl, now he hates me for it. And I just know she loves both of us. She glows when she is here. Joshua does too. Now he cries at night and so do I. She calls and asks for icecream money and stuff. I wish I could take them and Joe out to have some. My momma used to take us for ice cream and it was the best thing ever. I also miss my mom. Sorry I rambled here, Im just broken and alone. Lost on what to do now. It seems I have lost it all and will never have any of it back. I am so sorry for your loss. I bet your daddy was alot like our Kenny. Bless you maam. Death is nothing at all helps me sometimenes. Its a poem someone sent to me after Kenny left us. It still hurts but I think it always will. Joe is so much like him, but different , he is much larger in build and he is a fighter! Yikes/

  • nfa7 says:

    First of all, I’m so sorry for your loss. These are life’s most basic, most human, most profound grief and there is nothing and no one that can actually take this pain away. But I feel you did the right thing by writing about it. Write about it more. Just like the way talking to our friends help ease the pain, writing will give you the strength to move forward one step, one day at a time. You write so, so well. The world needs you to write more 🙂 I hope you feel better and remember, we are all there with you in spirit.

  • saintschick says:

    Great article. I’m sorry for your loss. I also lost my father last month and this is the hardest thing I have ever gone through. You are so right about sadness; I do move through life but I am sad. I keep my faith and pray for myself and others going through this.

  • sabrinapalmer says:

    I am so sorry for your loss. I know the pain of losing a parent, as I have lost both. At point in time I began to feel like an orphan. I know that feeling of trying to write and end up writing about everything, yet nothing at the very same time. I actually started my blog just vent about being an empty nester. I suffer from major depression, anxiety and PTSD; this piece that you wrote spoke to me as an old friend who understands my feelings of parental loss. My father has been gone 30 years and my mom, 11.5 years. I still mourn at time like it just happened. I think, especially in your life; the inability to try and prepare ( although there really is way to) is such a hard jagged pill to swallow. My father was laughing with me after his round of chemo; I kissed him said I’d see later and left for work. An hour later I got the saying that he had passed. So open your tap as many times as you see fit, I still bleed mine often. Grief doesn’t go away we just learn to live with it… Thank you for this piece..

  • Jennifer says:

    I am sorry for your loss. I lost my father months before he turned 61. He hadn’t even retired yet. That was a couple years ago. The grief will get better. Your writing will get back on track. Just be patient with yourself.

  • […] via On Writing Back From Grief — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • Rae, I have just now read this post because I’ve been grieving the loss of the person I was in January 2016. That’s right–something in me changed that day four years ago, and I’ve been struggling to get back to that missing time and space. I’ve not been able to write because of that loss.

    Before I go any further, I want to say how sorry I am for your loss. I lost my dad in 1973 when I was 27 and a single mom. He was 72 when he died, but also had the history of alcoholism in his life and he too had recovered and was my best friend. I still miss him all these years later. When I need to, I talk to him and I know he hears me. Losing our parents is hard and you have every reason to be struggling with your writing.

    I’m just beginning to struggle with starting over with my writing. Beginning again isn’t easy, as you already know and possibly understand. But with this post you’ve given yourself a start. Buy a new journal, a new writing implement, and start writing out your feelings, both good and bad. Write letters to your dad. Write down your anger at not being able to write anymore. Get it all out. Now I’m rambling, but I care about what you’re feeling and I know firsthand. For four years, I wanted to write. It’s who I am. And I’m still struggling with it. I guess my whole point is there are many of us who, for one reason or another, have come up empty.

    My best to you as you continue to work your way forward.

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