Holidays can be times of great challenge for those wading through the days and months and years of grief. I can never quite tell which days of significance are going to be difficult and which will pass with ease. So, in a sense, they are just like any other day. I have been thinking a lot about gratitude lately, and about how much I have in my life to be grateful for and especially how grateful I am that my life seems to finally be coming together after so many years of hardship and loss.
After my last essay was published, numerous readers reached out thanking me for writing what I do. For delving into grief openly and deeply in a way that resonated with each of them. For letting them know that they are not alone in the vast world of grief that on occasion feels like it might swallow you whole.
In my current position as a brain injury advocate, I am constantly speaking of the value of support groups, of the significance of survivors attending support groups and almost universally discovering that they are not alone in their struggle and recovery. It's funny, because until this latest flood of messages, I never thought to compare grief writing to a support group, but it ends up with a similar result and the unequivocal message: you are not alone.
Here is what one reader wrote:
"I just wanted to thank you. For writing those articles about grief and for understanding me so well when it seems nobody else does. You touched a place very deep in me and wrote things I've been feeling but haven't been able express or put into words. I also lost my husband to cancer 7 months ago. He was 31. We have a now 4 year old son together. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your writings. It's comforting to know that I'm not the only who feels these things and that it's ok. Thank you." -S.K.
This kind of response to my writing makes my heart swell. I started writing about my loss primarily as a way to work through my own grief and struggles as a young widow; single, grieving parent; mother; and woman, but as time has gone on, I try to also keep in mind the possible good that my words might do, how they might bring love and light to someone else in the dark place of early grief, in the bewildering days immediately post-loss, or the commingling denial and hope of anticipatory grief.
Please remember: you are not alone. Though everyone grieves differently and no one else can do the work of grief for you, you are not alone. Though it often feels that way, you are not alone. When in doubt, repeat to yourself: you are not alone.
A couple weekends ago, my daughter and I once again had the opportunity to attend Camp Ray of Hope, a weekend-long camp for grieving families and individuals held annually in central Maine. It is remarkable the difference that a year makes.
Last year, my grief was still a raw and gaping open wound. Steve had been dead six months. I had recently restarted nursing school, Zoe was just beginning to process her own grief, and I was still recovering from a bout of the flu that was so severe it nearly sent me to the hospital. Honestly, I was exhausted and running on fumes. Our experience at CROH that year was so healing and supportive, and so terribly, terribly necessary at that point in our lives.
This year two other widows and I (who had all met last year at CROH) noted how far we had come in twelve months. We were still angry, sad, and grieving, but damn if we weren’t moving through life, starting to laugh again, to bring laughter to our grief (because sometimes that is just what you have to do), and even starting to enjoy life again. We talked about how much our children had grown, what was easier now and what still hurt like hell, and about the difference a little time and distance can make. We also talked about how we were now in a place within our grief where we could actually reach out and support others, a concept that seemed impossible a year prior.
On the second day of Camp I had the privilege of offering a writing/journaling workshop with Emily Swartz, a dear friend and fellow writer and widow. We brought some readings and writing prompts, and were prepared to talk a little about how writing had helped us with our own grief. We had journals (generously purchased by the Hospice Volunteers of the Waterville Area) and mandalas for folks to color. We worried whether people would come. We worried if we would have enough to offer them.
The sign-up sheet was full. More participants showed up than we had materials for. We gathered together in a circle and talked. I passed around a copy of Mary Oliver’s “Heavy.” We read and laughed and cried. Some who had never journaled before seemed excited at the prospect, some who had been away for a while vowed to revisit it, and others spoke of the therapeutic nature of getting words on the page. Some folks read their responses aloud, others sat quietly with their words, but everyone seemed perhaps a little more peaceful for the experience.
The next day we all participated in a short ceremony honoring the loved ones that we had lost and said our goodbyes. We made plans to connect, plans to stay in touch, plans to see each other in the same place next year.
I can tell you with great certainty, I’m already looking forward to it.
One of my oldest poet-friends has a beautiful book of poetry forthcoming this fall. Brendan Todt and I met many years ago at Knox College through our mutual interests in poetry and soccer. From the very beginning I have always been in awe of the beauty and honesty in his poems and I can remember on more than one occasion thinking: someday I want to write poems this delicate and compelling, of this caliber. And now, his lovely book is on its way into the world! Please consider supporting this dear friend and wonderful poet by pre-ordering The Idea of Leaves within the Dying Tree. You can visit Brendan's website here and order the book here.
Last September, my then 3-year-old daughter Zoe and I drove to Friends Camp, a small Quaker camp in China, Maine. It had been a long and exhausting summer (you can read this essay for an idea) and we were about to attend Camp Ray of Hope, a camp specifically for grieving families and individuals from Maine run by our local Hospice Volunteers of the Waterville Area.
Despite a few rocky moments (mostly involving the joys of toddler overtiredness), camp was really a turning point for Zoe. For the first time, she really got to be around other kids who had lost family, many of them who had lost their fathers, just like her. The children from one family in particular, cousins, all of whom were much older than Zoe, took her under their wings and supported her, even as they dealt with their own grief. In addition to talking about their loved ones, emotions, and feelings, the kids did art projects, played games, and we all got to go for a magnificent boat ride on China Lake.
Meanwhile, the adults met in their own groups. The mother and aunt of those same kids who took Zoe under their wings ended up in my group. Emily and I became fast friends. We learned that we had both lost our young husbands to cancer. Over breakfast one morning we discovered that we were both writers. As our children bonded, so did we. As we packed our belongings at the end of the weekend and released balloons for those we had lost in an emotional closing ceremony, we talked of returning to camp the following year, of staying in touch.
Unlike so many friendships formed at childhood camps, our bond has held, and I am happy to report that both of our families are returning to camp this fall, now just a couple months away. Not only that, but together we will be facilitating a writing workshop for the adults attending camp.
Camp is a safe place, where everyone is facing loss and grief, and we can speak openly. There is no judgment and there are no looks of pity, just support and understanding. Though we are all at different stages in our grief, and though we may have arrived at camp under wildly varying circumstances, we are there together.
We know that many people will have never written before, and we know that some people will be terrified of the thought. We are so hopeful that offering an avenue of expression in a place as safe as camp will be therapeutic, even if participants never read a single word aloud or show another soul. Sometimes just getting the words down on paper is all it takes.
Yesterday may have been the first day of spring, but Maine is still buried under many, many feet of snow.
I have received a lot of requests from readers for a way to keep up with my work as it is published, and I hope this blog (and the RSS feed that goes with it) will take care of that. As my writing is published and exciting things happen in my writing life, I will update here.
Here is a little recap of publications from this winter:
Last One Standing in Mamalode
The Eddy in Brain, Child Magazine
Mailbox in Word Riot
Wild Child in the Washington Post
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Many thanks for reading.
Sarah Kilch Gaffney lives and writes on a little piece of land in Maine.