Writing to Survive Grief – and Thrive
By Brenda Smit-James
Grief is one of the most difficult emotions we will ever need to navigate in our lives. In today’s Western society it is often considered an undesirable emotion – one we should get over and move past as quickly as possible. Even as a Christian, I found my grief conflicted with a consensus that can be summed up in these words that were said to me one Sunday, “Are you still crying? Don’t you know that your mother is in heaven? That’s a reason to celebrate!”
What are we to do with our deep emotions? How are we to process any trauma we may have experienced because of the suddenness or the circumstances surrounding the death of our loved one?
I found my answer on the page, in the written word. Writing became a way for me to process my grief, my questioning, and my inner world. At first, I journaled my way through my grief. And it was cathartic, to a point, because I realised that I didn’t just want to survive my grief, I wanted to thrive. I wanted to live life fully again. It’s what my mother would’ve wanted, and it is what I wanted for myself. However, in my grief, I had reached that crossroad I call the guilt of forgetting and the torment of remembering.
My desire to heal, and my realization that I needed to move forward, collided with my longing not to forget. In grief we often feel guilty when we start to smile or laugh again. It feels a little traitorous. We don’t want to dishonor our loved one. We don’t want to forget them or the circumstances of their death. We want to remember but, in remembering, we can become stuck and the difficult memories can slowly rob us of life.
Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa has said, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” And so I took to the page. I started to write the story of my mother’s death and the journey that God took me on through my grief.
Writing my grief story enabled me to take those hard memories – the ones that haunted me, the ones that that were going around and around in my head – and tell their story. I took them out of my head and let them live on the page. I didn’t have to try to remember them and, because they lived elsewhere, I could go back to read them any time I wanted to. I was freed from the torment of remembering and from any guilt that I might forget them. Not only was it liberating, it was a crucial step towards healing in my journey with grief, and to living life to the full again.
Once I started to tell my story with grief, I couldn’t but also tell how God used my grief to challenge me and to grow me. My grief wasn’t an isolated event and it hadn’t happened because God didn’t care. But happen it did and, as strange as it seemed, how I responded to it would determine how God could use my grief to benefit me. If I would but let him.
As I weaved my story, I saw how God’s threads were also redeeming my story. It was still a painful story. It was still a story that broke my heart. But it was no longer a story that would leave me crippled like a bird with a broken wing. No, in telling my story with grief, through writing it – word by word on the page – God mended my broken wing and, ever so tentatively, I started to fly again.
Not only was my sorrow borne, but in telling its story God repurposed my grief. I didn’t have to leave it behind. I didn’t have to get over it. It would always be a part of me, but now I could go forward without it consuming me. I would not only survive, I was now free to thrive.
About this Contributor:
Short-listed in the 2018 Women’s Journey of Faith Contest, Brenda’s memoir When God Says No: My Journey through Grief to Acceptance chronicles her grief after her mother’s untimely death and how Jesus transformed her relationship with her alcoholic father. Having experienced the healing power of story, Brenda teaches writing courses online to help others capture their stories. Her YouTube channel, below, is an excellent resource for advice on writing your memoir.