Turning grief into art

This past Saturday afternoon I read poetry about the death of my son and its aftermath at Beyond Baroque, a literary arts center in Venice California. Two women, Chanel Brenner, and Alexis Rhone Fancher, who also experienced the death of their sons joined me. We were pleased to read before a packed standing-room-only crowd.

Madeline, Alexis, and Chanel

Madeline, Alexis, and Chanel (photo by James Fancher)

We each started our poetry reading with our views about writing as healing. Here’s mine.

How Writing Helped Me Heal

by Madeline Sharples

My son Paul died by suicide on September 23, 1999. He was twenty-seven years old.

Poems just started coming out during a writing workshop shortly after his death. Poetry seemed to be the only way I could really express my emotions.

Writing allows me put my pain on the page. Instead of carrying it with me every moment of the day and night, I found a place where I could have a little relief. There was so much I couldn’t say out loud to anyone. And since there was so much anger and grief in me, I needed a place to put it.

The page didn’t judge. The page never told me what to do or how to handle my grief. The page never told me it was time to stop grieving already. The page was like an everyday friend.

Even now, if I don’t write every day I get itchy. I’ve integrated it into my life. In fact, writing saved my life.

Here’s a couple of poems I read on Saturday.

Black Bomber

Swaddled in this
black bomber jacket all weekend,
I am safe from the Big Sur chill.
It’s too large for me.
And that’s okay. It was Paul’s.
I bought it for him
years ago at American et Cie on La Brea
before he went crazy
and decided to leave us
way before his time.
I like how it snuggles me,
like he’s in there too giving me a hug.
It’s the only piece
of his clothing I have left.
I’ve given away the rest:
his favorite plaid shirts
that smelled of sweat and smoke,
the torn jeans he salvaged
from second-hand stores,
his worn brown Doc Marten oxfords
that took him miles on his manic escapades,
and the tan suede jacket
he had me repair over and over
because he couldn’t let it go.
Like this jacket
I’ll never let it go.
It has stains I can’t remove
and threads unraveling,
My son is gone.
But this jacket
try and take it from me.
Just try.

paul005Paul’s Tree

It has to be a climbing tree, I say
to replace the one
he used to climb as a boy,
to remind me of him
sitting in the wide Vee
of the upper branches
smiling and proud
of his climbing success.
I settle on a small coral tree
that promises pinky orange blooms
and strong branches for climbing and sitting
and place it in its designated spot
exactly one year after his death.
In the thirteen years since,
Paul’s tree has produced
dark green leaves
the coral flowers are few
and branches that shoot out
wide and tall from its
four ever-thickening trunks.
When it gets its yearly trim.
I cry, don’t take too much away,
but the hackers always do.
Except they can’t fix its damage.
The driveway cracked and
last week plumbers
dug a hole as deep as a grave
that butted against it,
chopping away its roots
to take out a broken pipe.
They shake their heads and say,
It has to go or your troubles will never stop.
I shake my head no.
But I know it’s grown too large.
Its roots undermine and its thick
and full branches let no sun shine through.
The day will have to come to replace it
with some red-blooming wispy thing,
and a single miniature trunk that will do
no boy who likes to climb any good.

Black Bomber and most of the other poems I read on Saturday are in my memoir Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide. You can buy a signed first edition for $15.00 (regular price is $28.00) over at my Amazon’s seller’s site here.

Original cover

Original cover


  1. […] Last December, Chanel Brenner, Alexis Fancher, and I read poetry about the death of our sons at Beyond Baroque, a literary arts center in Venice California. See my blog post about this event here. […]

Speak Your Mind