“Writing is for everyone, like sleeping and eating.” So writes Natalie Goldberg at the start of her 2013 writing guide, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language. Grief, too, is for everyone.

Grief takes us by surprise. It hides around corners. It comes in different shapes. It screams toward us with high Doppler frequency, fades at lower pitches.

Grief took my family again last week, when my beloved stepmom passed in her sleep. Sure, she was ninety-four, and her end was imminent. She’d been failing, with signs that her system was shutting down. But she’d rallied many times. Death when it came still snuck in like a thief in the night, literally.

She went to bed on Monday and didn’t get up on Tuesday. When I got the call in the morning, it didn’t hit me at first that her lack of a pulse could last.

I’ve always dreaded departures. Some are temporary and only sad for a while. With death, the finality goes damn deep. With this departure: the loss of a good friend, someone always up for playing cards or dominoes. Someone always happy to have a visitor, happy to share a cup of tea. Always a kind word. She of the generation who lived through the Depression, knew the world before Hitler, saw many of her classmates gone to war in Europe or the Pacific.

She was one of the last personal connections I have to the thirties and forties. Big bands. Circle skirts. Black-and-white films not yet in love with violence. Optimism.

She adored music. She welcomed my husband Paul to the family at first sight. She read my books and never missed my readings. She wrote me nice notes about them all. She loved my father and traveled the world with him after they married at age sixty-five.

Her companionship kept him alive after he’d already lost one love of his life.

Now he roams the hallways of his big, rambling home, calling her name, confusing this loss with the loss of my mother. He asks whether she’s coming back, but it’s not really a question. It’s more a daily realization. She’s not coming back. We have our ways of coping. Talking is good, and sitting together holding hands.

For me, writing helps carve a path through the grief. And, to take Natalie Goldberg at her word, maybe writing is also for everyone, especially at times like this. We who want to move through grief can all pick up a pen.

  1. We can write letters to those who share the memories.
  2. We can write tributes for newspapers and for posterity.
  3. We can write down the thoughts we had of her today.
  4. We can write to a friend and not even mention her, to put aside our grief.
  5. We can write to a friend and mention nothing else.
  6. We can write another short story, which if she were here she’d read and say she loves.
  7. We can write another book, and she’d say the same.
  8. We can write in our journals about the dreams we have of her, that she’s still here and we’re having a chat.
  9. We can write poems, weaving in some of the things she’d say as comfort, like, “Slow and steady wins the race,” which I for one took as gospel.
  10. We can write the exercises in writing guides, like Natalie Goldberg’s, Ursula K. LeGuin’s, Mary Oliver’s. Jordan Rosenfeld’s. Anne LaMott’s. (Or Write Free, by Jordan and me.)

In The True Secret of Writing, Natalie Goldberg continues:

Buddha said sleep is the greatest pleasure. We don’t often think of sleep like that. It seems so ordinary. But those who have sleepless nights know the deep satisfaction of sleep. The same is true of writing.

Grief, too, is ordinary. It’s no pleasure, though, and writing and grief are joined at the hip and the heart. They serve each other, sometimes well. Not that the quality of the service matters. What matters is the coping. And surviving.

Grief comes to us through the Middle English, from Old French grever, “to burden.” With the movement of the pen, some movement with the burden.

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