Writing memoir helped me deal with grief

As I am inching toward December 31, which would be my son Paul’s forty-seventh birthday, I think it makes sense to revisit some of the tools I used in dealing with the grief I felt after his death and still feel now. Memoir writing and writing in general were/are a huge help.

Maybe that’s why I’ve turned to memoir again. I’m almost twenty thousand words along on a new one; however it’s not about Paul, as my memoir, published in 2011, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, is.

Here’s a piece I wrote early on about how writing memoir, journal entries, and poetry all worked for me. In fact, everything I wrote in the piece below still applies today.

How Memoir Writing Helped Me Deal with Grief

I signed up for a writing class three months after my son Paul’s death. We sat in the instructor’s living room on couches and big easy chairs in a comfortable and forgiving atmosphere. Each week the instructor told us to write a journal entry. He didn’t specify a subject. This was a beginner’s class. All he wanted us to do was learn to “write like you talk,” and to write in a voice that came from deep within our bellies. And then we’d come back the next week and read to the group what we had written.

At first I was afraid to put my grief out there in my writing. When I apologized for writing about the same subject matter in my assigned journal entries over and over, my instructor, Jack, said, “It took Dostoyevsky five hundred pages to write Crime and Punishment, you have a long way to go.”

With that I felt empowered to write about Paul and how I felt about his death and the pain of losing him. And I still feel empowered to do it.

After several years of patiently listening to my material, Jack and the rest of the class encouraged me to put my story into a book. They felt certain there were people who needed to know it.

And then a goal to put my material into a memoir started to formulate: I thought if I could tell my story in the most truthful and realistic terms possible, I could help other parents with children with bipolar disorder that in many cases results in their suicide. Otherwise I felt it wouldn’t be useful to anyone – including me.

And so I kept writing my journal entries – not only for class, not only to comfort myself, but also to emerge into a memoir. I also wrote poems. Poetry just seemed to come spontaneously. Poetry seemed to be the only way I could really express my emotions. And when the time came for me to put my material into a book I organized it in the order of the poems in my poetry manuscript.

Writing was my therapy. I was turned off by traditional therapy after my first meeting with someone who hadn’t experienced the death of a child. I couldn’t imagine how that person could help me. And I didn’t turn to self-help books either. Along with working and working out, I found my way by writing every day. It became a habit and a huge help in getting myself out of the mire after my son’s death and the tragedy that had hit my family.


Here’s one of my favorite poems that I wrote about Paul. It is included in my memoir, which by the way, is on sale until December 31 (the Kindle edition is now only $.99). Click here to purchase.

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 Martin 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.

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