Writing a memoir on a difficult subject: on loss, grief and death
Welcome to my blog, I am delighted you have joined me today.
‘Do you know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken.’ Terry Prachett. When we write memoir the dead still live within our writing and thoughts.
I started writing my memoir Calel a few years ago after my much loved mother died as a means of healing the deep pain and confusion within me. Experts tell us that the relationship between mother and daughter is the most complex. I agree. And add mental illness and migration unhappiness into the mix and the relationship between my mother and me was challenging.
I started carrying a notebook and jotted things I remembered about my mother and her life- trying to heal myself. Eventually a context emerged and developed into something that I could hang a story on. As I kept writing the surprising thing was I was writing about my mother but I grew to understood myself more.
I dug up old photos, letters, diaries, even played old Beatles music. Like a jigsaw puzzle it started to create a picture.
One day I smelt the aroma of an old furniture polish called Marveer and the memories came flooding in. My mother used that to polish the furniture until it gleamed. The smell of Rinso washing powder boiling in a copper brought back blocked memories.
The Buddha said ‘The trouble is you think you have time.’ Start your memoir now. Start a memoir someone who has died that was meaningful to you.
‘Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.’ Soren Kierkegaard. Going backwards into my life has helped me move forward. Writing about difficult topics helped me cope. Many studies have shown that writing about stressful and traumatic events can improve our mental health.
This is a photo of my mother smelling a rose. It is a simple photo, but within that photo lay hidden complex and painful issues that were going on at the time. The longer I stared at the photo the more I remembered bits that were hidden from my consciousness.
The flowers in the photo are growing in cracks of cement. Writing a memoir opens up a life that has laid dormant.
We all die. It is a truism, we are all passing through.
Vladimir Nabokov in his book Speak, Memory said that ‘the cradle rocks above an abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’ He reminds us that in life we are between life and the unknown.
Kahlil Gibran said in his book The Prophet, ‘for life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.’
Yet each death comes to us as a startled response. Each time we are unprepared for the death. Even if the person is old or very ill, death frightens us and fills us with dread.
The truth is we are transformed with each death.
We are changed, never to be the same person again. We may be altered in subtle ways such a a transition form someone’s daughter or son, to now being the oldest in the family. No more the child.
You may ask yourself, ‘Who am I if I am now not the son or daughter anymore? Or not the wife. Or not the mother of.. ?’ We need to adjust to change. Death forces us to change the identity of ourselves. A memoir helps this transition.
It may feel as though you are digging deep into a deep cave when you start your memoir about a person who has died.
You may wish to write a memoir (or develop a memoir book- more of that a little later) of someone significant who has died. It may be a mother or father or child or a dear friend. Someone close.
Tips on creating a memoir book:
Ways to start: listen or read other memoirs about death, grief and loss.
Dr Karen M. Wyatt has a wonderful podcast End of Life University where she interviews people going through grief and loss. Her podcasts are beautiful, thought provoking and sensitive and will assist anyone to connect with their grief. In her podcasts she addresses her personal pain and confusion when her much loved father committed suicide. She stated that when she could not function because of her deep unrelenting grief. A woman she knew came and silently cleaned her home and left. This was the kindest act to Karen and enabled her to make small steps to slowly regain her life.
Suggestions for a writing in your memoir book:
When you write use your five senses-what did you see, what did you smell, what was the sound, the taste, the touch.
Write your feelings
Write quotes that empower you
Lessons you have learnt in life
Magical moments with the person
Paste photos of the deceased
Write weekly notes to yourself to process the grief
Make your journal writing a part of your day, write often
Write poetry – your own or others- that connect for you
Jot the dead person’s favourite recipes
Write events you would like to tell your children and grandchildren
Make a scrap book of personal mementos, theatre tickets, cards, menus.
Sometimes we need to dig deep to reach some hidden memories, as in the photo above. My mother, her grandmother, mother and brother. It may mean going into dark places.
This painting- by my wonderful brother Jim (deceased)- he was an artist. He used his art to show through a series of beautiful paintings- his grief and sadness at the stages of his cancer. This painting portrayed the tranquillity of his life before his cancer diagnosis.
Dr Kubler Ross spoke of the five stages of grief:
denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance.
The progression through the stages varies between each of us. Some are stuck in one stage. Some never find acceptance. We grieve in our own way and in our own time. And that is as it should be.
Small things may remind you of someone who died:
Handling an object that was a gift from the person who died.
Experiencing a meal or eating a favourite food of the person who died.
Smelling their favourite perfume.
Watching a favourite TV show.
Anniversary date of their death.
We are all different.
Some people laugh in difficult situations, not everyone cries.
Writing notes about a loved person can help process grief.
Grief journaling has a therapeutic effect.
These lovely desert pea flowers below, flower in abundance in their own good time. Sometimes not for years. But when they do are superb.
Your writing is the flowering of memories that will make the person that has died live again for children and grandchildren and for yourself.
Some tips to get you started
Write and keep your hands moving. Just write in your journal.
Don’t cross out or edit.
Don’t be logical.
Keep your journal close to you and scribble when thoughts pop up.
Some suggestions to get you started may include:
Start a sentence with ‘I remember you when’ ….
-when it is autumn and the leaves turn red and orange on the trees..
-when we made our special bread together …
-when you shaved off your beard as a surprise and I did not recognise you.
In my own life … in my memoir Calel, I remember my mother making Greek pastries, the kitchen warmth, her hands white with icing sugar. Wiping her hands on her checked apron.
Perhaps your memoir may be written in the form of an open letter to the person who died.
You may wish to use poetry to express your feelings.
Writing about loss and death can give you power and strength over the grief and pain of the loss. It is as though we make an opening in a brick wall and can see out. Seeing out is not always clear, sometimes another wall. But with time can open that as well.
One of the most sensitive and beautiful books on death is Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking.
She said at the start of her book
‘Life changes so fast. Life changes in an instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.’
This powerful book is Joan Didion’s attempt at making personal sense of the weeks and months that followed after her beloved husband John Gregory Dunne died at the dinner table.
I would recommend you read her book if you are planning on writing a memoir about someone who died. The emotion and chaos of her grief and eventual resolution is clearly portrayed.
Others wish to document their own dying as Donald Horne and Myfanwy Horne in Dying a Memoir. Donald Horne began dictating his experience of dying and wrote his thoughts about his terminal illness and memoirs of his life. A lovely thought provoking book celebrating life in its details of joy and sadness.
Paul Kalanithi in his bestselling book When Breath Becomes Air wrote when at age thirty-six and on the verge of completing his degree to be a neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. This brilliant compelling book tells of his experience as a doctor treating others who were dying and then in turn, becoming the dying patient.
Even in death there is renewal and regrowth. At a personal level memoir helps this.
Eleanor Cooney wrote of her mother and her slide into Alzheimer’s disease, Death in Slow Motion. She said that ‘Death is a sumo wrestler and slams love to the mat every time.’
I love the image of death as a sumo wrestler, is so visual. Eleanor describes her mother as once being hip, cool, brilliant and funny, she was not like other mothers. She speaks at length of the woman her mother was before Alzheimer’s disease, captures the joy and magnificence of her life. Eleanor wanted people to know this was her mother. And how the disease robbed her of her person-hood with her slow decline into dementia.
This photo shows the calmness of nature.
I wish you calmness and peace in your grief and loss, I hope you can write your thoughts in a memoir. I hope it allows you to heal.
Please jot any comment and subscribe to my blog if you wish to read more tips and hints on writing memoir.
I plan to run themes in my blog such as addiction, migration, transformation in future blogs. I do hope my blog sparks an interest in writing and in reading other memoirs.
No man is an island, we all learn from each other and each others lives. Memoir can be a blue print for others to find their way when they are in similar situations.
Thank you again for reading my blog.
I hope you return next time.