Giving words to sorrow

In 2010 I completed a PhD in Creative Writing on the topic of grieving the death of a young adult child. The exegetical part of my thesis examines theories of grief, spiritual perspectives on grief, and the role narrative, language and storytelling can play in healing grief. The creative part of my thesis is a memoir of my own experiences in losing my young adult daughter to cancer. The following year this was published as a book Sing no Sad Songs (Canterbury University Press).

Writing about a traumatic event can be cathartic whether it is intended only for the writer’s eyes, or whether a space is created that can be shared with readers. Writing about personal bereavement can effect catharsis in the writer and can connect writer and reader to accomplish what  Aristotle called ‘a catharsis of such emotions’.

When Pennebaker described the power of narrative expression to bring about catharsis in the narrator he was echoing what Shakespeare knew four centuries ago when he said ‘Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the oer fraught heart and bids it break’. Written narrative is especially effective as it creates a space where the writer can process his/her thoughts and feelings. This is exemplified in Virginia Woolf’s description of how she released her grief for her parents by writing To the Lighthouse: ‘I suppose that I did for my parents what psychoanalysts do for their patients,’ she said, ‘I expressed some very ‘long-felt and deeply-felt emotion. And in expressing it, I explained it and then laid it to rest’.

When my daughter Rebecca died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 23, I had no words to describe this cataclysmic event. Though I am a writer, words failed me. It hurt to be inside my skin. It hurt to hear laughter. It hurt to breathe. The silence of my own home, the green beauty of my garden, the quiet paddocks, the rivers, the mountains provided no refuge. They were all empty spaces that reverberated with Rebecca’s absence. This new territory was so bleached of colour, so arid and alien, so lacking in anything recognisable that I had no language to negotiate my way through it. I felt stripped of my skin. My husband said he felt as if he were bleeding inside.

The enormity of the death of one’s child cannot be adequately expressed within the limitations of spoken language. Schnell describes how every time she began to talk about her dead child she started coughing so hard she bruised her ribs. She says she was simply choking on words. Grinyer’s 2002 study, based on the written narratives of parents of young adult children with cancer, identifies the difficulty parents have in finding words to speak of their experiences. This parallels the lack of vocabulary that Knapp’s respondents revealed in interviews about their reactions on hearing of their child’s sudden death. They said they found it easier to write their stories than to talk about their feelings.

Storytelling has power which may be used as a tool to help the bereaved construct a new reality. Morgan expresses it thus: ‘We may not know what we think or feel until we hear ourselves saying it.’ Through stories we can make sense of the past, understand how the present came into being and predict what is likely to occur in the future. Grinyer says that the death of one’s child needs to be assimilated into the changed life-story and world view of the parents. Parents’ stories of their children’s deaths can thus serve the same purpose as parents’ stories of their living children’s ongoing lives. Stories by bereaved parents encapsulate one of life’s most profound experiences. As Grealy says, ‘Sometimes the closest we get to answering the saddest questions life asks of us is to respond in the most beautiful language we can muster’.

Writing about the death of one’s child is a way not only to continue bonds with that child but is also a way to allow Frank’s ‘wounded storyteller’ to give voice to the dead, who cannot speak for themselves.

Written expression is more powerful than verbal expression, says Bolton, as ‘it does not disappear on the breath’. It is the process of writing itself, she says, which brings clarification to the writer. Even so, written narratives by bereaved parents often rely on imagery and metaphor to describe grief: ‘living in a world without colour,’ ‘times of absolute blackness’, ‘ a tsunami of the soul,’ ‘pain so intense it blots out the sun’. Marx and Davidson describe the feelings of parents who confront the moment they no longer have a living child:

If it were a picture, there would be only darkness. If it were music, it would only be a cry of pain or for some, a single chord in a minor key – a chord extending beyond our ability to endure it. But the loss of a child is not a painting – it is not music. It is the colour of our pain. It is the desperate cry of our emptiness.

In my first year of grieving, bereft of even metaphors, I turned to books to see if the words of others could help me. Reading about the experiences of others provided a guide in an unfamiliar landscape, though as Frank points out in The Wounded Storyteller, people tell stories not to provide a map for others, but rather to witness the experience of reconstructing their own map. Such stories became, for me, an important part of what Schnell calls the ‘cellular structure of my grief’. She describes the redemptive power of language as a way back to healing and the Book of Job as her inspiration to write the story of her child’s death. She says, ‘If I had lost my ability to tell my own story, Job reminded me it was important to at least keep trying, that there might be the possibility of a new narrative – that I might, metaphorically, get my stuff back – if I learned how to tell’.

Writing poetry was the way New Zealand writer Lauris Edmond came to terms with the death of her daughter. She said, ‘Two years after her death I became aware of a need to widen and strengthen the whole shape of my consciousness to accommodate the fact of her loss and to learn the ways I could keep my knowledge of her fresh and untarnished by bitterness.’ Isabelle Allende found catharsis in writing her daughter Paula’s story as Paula lay in a coma for a year before she died. At the end of her book Allende writes, ‘I am Paula and I am also Isobel. I am nothing and all things in this life and others’ lives. Godspeed Paula woman. Welcome Paula spirit.’

Where the clinical language of academic studies can often be impenetrable to bereaved parents, personal experience stories, fiction and poetry can help them recognise milestones in their own journey through grief. New Zealand writer Tessa Duder reiterates this difficulty with clinical language. She says after her daughter’s death she could find nothing in the academic literature she could relate to. ‘What I wanted’, she says, ‘was some accumulated wisdom in the shape of written material which truly cast light on my anguish, to show me how, learning from others further on the same journey, I might deal with it.’ Frank and Holloway give accounts of patients who were given books to read to help them understand their grief. They claimed the theoretical analyses of grief were no help. The personal experience stories, however helped them to recognise their own grief journey in the kind of milestones the Compassionate Friends refer to as ‘into their grief’ ‘well along in their grief’ and ‘grief resolved as much as it will be’.  Personal narratives on death and grief, with their sometimes powerful metaphoric language contribute to academic understanding of the experience and are a particularly appropriate means of exploring the evolving nature of grief. Reading about the experiences of others acts as a guide in an unfamiliar landscape.

Spratt and Denney examined how stress, particularly grief, depletes the immune system. When the bereaved cannot talk about or are discouraged from talking about the deceased, their feelings become internalised and manifest in physical symptoms of illness. Pennebaker conducted clinical research in the mid-80s on the power of writing to restore mental and physical health. He concluded that narrative expression could effect catharsis in the narrator by helping to integrate thoughts and feelings and he found that people who wrote about traumatic events noticed a decreased need for medical help. Other studies have shown that writing about a traumatic experience is cathartic in that it allows the writer to ‘give sorrow words’. It also allows those who vicariously participate in the story, through reading, the opportunity to accomplish what Aristotle referred to as ‘a catharsis of such emotions…’

Writers are well aware of the connection between writing and well-being. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary about having ‘no power of phrase-making’ during a depressive illness. When she felt her ability to write return she knew she was recovering: ‘This is shown by the power to make images; the suggestive power of every sight and word is enormously increased’. Isabel Allende says in Aphrodite that after the death of her daughter, which she documented in Paula, she lost her ability to write and entered a long period of mourning. After three years she began to dream about food and this led to her writing Aphrodite, which she calls a memoir of the senses. Through writing, she began the journey towards recovery and reconnection to life.

Some of the most powerful writing comes out of the writer’s own experiences. This is exemplified in such works of fiction as Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
In describing how she released her grief for her parents by writing To the Lighthouse,Woolf said: ‘I suppose that I did for my parents what psychoanalysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long-felt and deeply-felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest’.

New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s novels, especially Owls do Cry, draw upon the many traumatic events in her life. American author John Irving’s says that after the cathartic time of writing Until I find You and the nine months of re-writing it in the third person, he was finally ready to let his book go out into the world. He adds: ‘… as emotionally difficult as this novel was for me, it is now very gratifying to have it behind me … I just know I won’t feel any urgent need to write about those subjects again’.

Robinson discusses the idea that the process of writing creates a reflecting place that allows a negotiation between inner and outer realities. Bolton describes this place as: ‘…a deeply creative, explorative and inventive space. It is a strenuous exercise of the imagination, when the imagination is a power at once intelligent, sensitive and constructive, importantly related to the power of healing’.

Whether a piece of writing about a traumatic event is intended only for the writer’s eyes, or for sharing with readers, all such writing, by giving concrete structure to the amorphous shapes of grief, can accomplish Aristotle’s ‘catharsis of such emotions’. In writing-as-therapy, the ‘writing-out’ takes primacy over the quality of the content. However, re-writing and re-structuring can enhance the therapeutic benefit, says Robinson: ‘…it is the control which the writer exhibits over the material which is most important, his/her conception of the relationship of language to experience rather than a mechanical process of transmutation and universalisation’. The difference between writing-as-therapy and writing for publication is that in the latter the material must be worked to allow the reader entry into what Nafisi describes as a space denied by reality.

The psychoanalyst, Bruno Bettelheim  theorised that in listening to stories, children identify with the central character who triumphs over adversity and are thus encouraged to face life with confidence. Similarly, adult readers can enter the space of a story and create a synthesis between internal and external realities so that it becomes possible to take the story off the page and use it to articulate one’s own story.

Language exerts a powerful influence on us and through the telling of stories and interaction with listener or audience we give structure to our experience. Analytical studies contribute to scholarly understanding of grief, but the clinical language renders them inaccessible to bereaved parents. In contrast, storytelling has power. The stories we tell about ourselves help us to accommodate our changing view of the world and maintain our identity. They help us find meaning in crises. They help the bereaved construct a new reality.

Narrative is a medium well suited to exploring the experience of death and bereavement. Writing fiction enabled me to create a space for myself where I could express my grief through metaphor and imagery and thus allowed me to ‘give sorrow words’ in a way I could not otherwise have done. As Gilbert says, we live in stories, not statistics.

Do you have something to say? Submit to The Write Life.

About the contributor

Related Articles

More Like This