Make sense of loss: Grieving in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

After losing a loved one we are hurled into an emotionally pressured period called “grieving.” Words can’t contain the initial shock, so we turn to ritual. After the funeral, our loss moves inside, throbbing as a constant reminder, later surfacing in random moments. Whether we overcome the shock quickly or linger in a demoralized state for years, the world has changed forever, breaking time into parts, before the loss and after. Gradually, we reclaim our strength, but we are not sure if these parts can ever be knitted together.

When we first approach our memoir writing project, we look back across the landscape of our lives. Our research awakens scenes, before, during, and after each great loss. Placing them in order, we revisit the whole sequence, from the joy of companionship, through the tragedy of the loss, and the courage to climb back.

To turn this sequence into a continuous narrative, we look for lessons from other authors who have done the same thing. Here are several examples of memoirs that describe the journey of grief. Each book demonstrates how to collect the upheavals of life into the container of a story.

Love letter to the deceased

Gail Caldwell’s memoir, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is like a love letter to her perfect friend, Caroline Knapp. The book celebrates their friendship and then passionately reveals the journey beyond their friendship. In Gail Caldwell’s beautiful book, death cannot steal such a precious bond.

Losing a child

In the first half of Losing Jonathan by Linda and Robert Waxler, the parents try to drag their son back from the brink of addiction, and then after his death, they must come to terms with their grief. The book offers much wisdom about the role of philosophy, literature, and community support in the journey to cope with loss.

Losing a husband and finding a path

At the beginning of  Here If You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup, a young mother loses her husband in a freak auto accident. Then she must raise her young children, and at the same time make peace with God’s plan. To achieve both goals, she decides to earn a living as a minister.  In seminary, she studies the Bible, delving into it not as the final word but as an inspiring source to help her learn and grow. I love her brand of seeking, a mix of organized religion, faith, and real world observation.

An essayist describes her own grief

At the beginning of Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s husband dies suddenly and she turns her prodigious powers of observation on herself, describing the resulting thoughts and feelings. Unlike other writers in this list, Didion did not reach toward a spiritual system or a belief in the transcendent. The absence of this dimension turns the tragedy into a barren ache that leaves me feeling helpless in the face of mortality.

Grieving and seeking are intimately related

Generally the word “grieving” describes the journey of recovering from the loss of a loved one. Similar emotional repair is often needed after losing anything we love. After the tragedy of 9/11, we realized that normal life could suddenly explode and turn into a nightmare. Our sense of safety was dead, and we had to find our way back.

Dani Shapiro’s memoir Devotion is about her journey to recover from both types of loss, the death of her father years before and her need to make sense of the fragility of life. She explores that sadness, and the need to make sense of it, not only emotionally, but more importantly, to find belief in something greater than herself. In “Devotion” the process of grieving becomes intimately related to the process of seeking a higher truth.

My Family’s Grieving

There is no particular time frame around grieving and in fact the process can be substantially delayed. When my brother died, I was in the middle of a confusing period of my life. I did not process my feelings about him until thirty years later when I saw the whole sequence come to life in the pages of my memoir. By writing, I was able to feel a closer connection to him and deeper understanding of my own feelings.

In the development of my memoir, I also saw how his death shook the family and how each of us came to terms with it in our own way. Decades after my brother’s death, my father still appeared to be shaken. Like other men of his generation, he remained silent about his emotions right up to the end. My mother on the other hand, went on a journey of self discovery. She learned from yogis, rabbis, television preachers, and books. Over the years, I watched her grow. Even as she became wiser, she was never satisfied and continued to learn.

Writing Prompt

What loss have you touched upon in your memoir research? Write a scene before the loss, when you felt an innocent, joyful sense of connection. Write another one soon after the loss, then several more scenes later, as your emotional response evolved. Set these scenes out on a time line, and graph the ups and downs of one of your emotions. Try hope for example, or faith. Fill in additional scenes along the line to offer you and your reader a richer understanding of the evolution of this emotion over time.

More memoir writing resources

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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One thought on “Make sense of loss: Grieving in Memoirs

  1. It took me 45 years to recognize and grieve the death of an infant brother who never made it out of the hospital. I was eleven at the time, and he was a a twin, so we still had one baby. Not until I visited his grave all those years later did it really dawn on me that I really did once have a second brother! I came home from that trip and wrote about the experience, which is posted online at http://snurl.com/o2tr.

    If you want a totally up-to-date overview of the grieving process that debunks traditional formulas and prescriptions, read THE OTHER SIDE OF SADNESS, by George Bonanno.

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