A few months after my mother died, I was on the phone with one of her good friends. We were talking — actually, I was ranting — about how emotionally wrecked I felt sorting through her belongings. I’d already donated Mom’s best clothes to a charity that helps women dress for the workplace, and given many of her books to her local library for their fundraiser. I had carefully selected pieces from her art and jewelry collections to give to her closest friends. But what should I do with the minutiae of her life so sentimental to me? I didn’t want to toss her wonderfully detailed appointment books, the programs from museums and concerts, or the family correspondences dating back a generation.
“Things are just things,” my mom’s friend reminded me. “Evaluate them one at a time, and they won’t overwhelm you.” Her advice reminded me of what I already knew so well about writing through grief — a subject so emotionally unwieldy that there seems to be no comfortable way in.
The story of a loss can be hard to explain, and harder to describe on paper. I know this first-hand: I’ve written a memoir about surviving my two younger sisters’ illnesses and subsequent deaths, and a forthcoming writers’ guide, “Braving The Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss.” Like you, I’ve been there, fingers on keyboard with so much to say, but so afraid to start. I’ve learned that for me, the best way to start is to write about the little things that won’t overwhelm me.
Here are five of my top tips to starting small when you’re writing about grief:
1). Pretend You’re Telling a Friend
As you sit down to write, imagine that you’re telling the story of your loss to a dear friend. Write what you’d say just as you’d say it. Don’t edit yourself or try to write formally. Can you explain clearly what happened? If you don’t know, or wish you knew more, what questions would you would ask if you were given the chance?
2). Fidget, and Imagine Your Loved One Doing the Same
Write a description of what you do when you’re sad or happy or uncomfortable. Do you twist a lock of hair? Chew gum? Now write a description of a fidgeting habit of the person you’re grieving. Got that down? Now write a scene in which you or your loved one (or both of you) are in a situation where you’re doing that very thing.
3). Let Music Take You Back
When you think of the person you’ve lost, is there a pop hit, a symphony, a nursery rhyme or even a team fight song that transports you to a time you both enjoyed? Sing a few bars or play the music, and write a scene that takes place when you were both listening to that music. (Quoting lyrics in a published piece can incur costs, so use the song only as a writing prompt.) The same goes for sound as a whole. Maybe a regional accent, a non-English word, or even a joke brings that person back to you.
4). Pack a Lunch
Brown bag it and spend the day at a location meaningful to your story. Bring a notebook with your sandwich, and write down your observations as well as how you feel. What do you notice when you’re face-to-face with that hospital lobby, the courthouse steps, or your grandparents’ old house? What color is the paint? Has that apple tree been cut down or grown unruly? Make a side-by-side list comparing what you see now with what you remember. These can be the building blocks for scenes.
5.) Make Decisions Later
Don’t worry right now about what will make it into your final story, essay or book. Write ideas and images as they come to you. Trust that as you develop your writer’s voice your story will take shape. The scenes and memories that mean the most to you will emerge.
Bringing clearly rendered, concrete details to your writing can shape your story of what happened, and who you have become in its aftermath. And it’s those details that help carry that heavy load. It’s advice I’ll turn to again as I slip into a soft brown winter coat that I’ve decided to keep. My mom wore that coat, and I am strong enough to let it warm me as winter comes.
Jessica Handler is the author of the forthcoming “Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief.” Her first book, “Invisible Sisters: A Memoir,” was named one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read” by the Georgia Center for the Book. Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post and More.