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9 posts categorized "Healing Grief"

November 02, 2006

A Word of Caution about Writing and Healing

Some of the writing ideas I've put up on this site have to do with writing about difficult or painful experiences. Though research has shown that this kind of writing can, over the long haul, be healing, research has also shown that, in the immediate aftermath, writing of this sort can sometimes feel painful.

On his website, James Pennebaker, one of the chief researchers in the field of writing and health, offers this advice, which applies in particular to writing that deals with upsetting experiences:

Many people report that after writing, they sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed. Like seeing a sad movie, this typically goes away in a couple of hours. If you find that you are getting extremely upset about a writing topic, simply stop writing or change topics.

I think this is sound advice. Some people may wonder: how upset is too upset? For me, an analogy to yoga is sometimes helpful here. I once had a yoga teacher tell us that when working on a new pose it’s prudent to stretch just a bit beyond where one has been before—stretching into that “good” and bearable kind of soreness—and holding that stretch for ten seconds, fifteen seconds, twenty seconds—but not stretching into frank pain. Stretching that is too painful can cause a kind of rebound effect: it hurts so much the next day that you may never want to go back to the class or ever think about yoga again. Writing can be like that. Writing that becomes too painful can make us want to shy away from the process.

So, just a bit of a stretch—a bearable stretch.

I also think it’s helpful to remember lifelines—those things that reconnect us to a sense of safety and comfort and belonging. And then we can call on those lifelines when we need them—when we, for instance, stretch ourselves a little farther than we intended to stretch. A healing place can be a lifeline. A healing resource can be a lifeline. Healing language. A friend. A counselor. A doctor. A teacher. A nurse. . . .

Perhaps one of the most important things to know about healing grief--whether one is writing or not--is to recognize when one has become overwhelmed by grief--when the feelings have become too much--and then to ask for help. And not to hesitate to ask for this help from a health professional.

November 17, 2006

About Grief: What Chekhov’s Cab-Driver Needs to Say

There’s a story by Anton Chekhov entitled, simply, “Grief”. I first learned about the story from Mary Swander’s essay, “The Fifth Chair,” in the anthology, Healing Circle. The story itself can be found in The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov. It speaks particularly well, I think, to what it is that grief may require.

When the story begins a cab-driver waits at twilight in the snow for a fare. His son has died the previous week. He waits a long time in the snow, and then finally—a passenger. As the evening wears on, the cab-driver attempts conversation with three different passengers. Three different times he attempts to tell his story—what has happened with his son. Each of the three interrupts him. One closes his eyes to stop the story. One informs him that we all must die. One simply gets out of the sleigh. Still later, the cab-driver attempts to stop and speak with a house-porter, but the house-porter tells him to drive on.

There’s so much that the cab-driver needs to tell. Chekhov writes:

One must tell it slowly and carefully; how his son fell ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died. One must describe every detail of the funeral, and the journey to the hospital to fetch the defunct’s clothes. His daughter Anissia remained in the village—one must talk about her too. Was it nothing he had to tell? Surely the listener would gasp and sigh, and sympathize with him?

The details must be told. And then—that gasp—that sigh—from the listener.

At the end of the day the cab-driver returns to the stables. He begins to speak to his horse:

Now let’s say you had a foal, you were that foal’s mother, and suddenly, let’s say, that foal went and left you to live after him. It would be sad, wouldn’t it?

The horse munches his hay and breathes his warm breath—and does not interrupt him. And that is how the story ends—with the cab-driver telling his story, finally, to his horse.

Perhaps what grief requires, as much as anything, is that the process not be interrupted. That it find a time and a place in which to unfold--with a companion (when possible) and without (too much) interruption. And, perhaps, at least for some of us, writing can play a role in this process.

Writing as a companion that does not interrupt?
Writing as a prelude to telling the story to a companion?

November 19, 2006

Broken Vessels: A Recommended Book

I have, for a long time now, loved the way that Andre Dubus writes. I love the clarity of his writing, the specificity, the rhythm of his prose, and something else too—this sense in everything he writes as if he knows something about loss—knows that all of this—everything—is impermanent—but he’s writing lovingly about it anyway. I could recommend any one of his books. His early story collections. His selected stories. His second book of essays, Meditations from a Movable Chair. His last book of stories, Dancing After Dark, which was published in 1997, two years before his death from a heart attack. But it’s this book—Broken Vessels—his first book of essays—that speaks, in a very personal way, to falling apart.

In July of 1986, Dubus stopped one night at the side of the highway to help a motorist in distress. While standing on the side of the road he was hit by a car. The impact cost him one of his legs and much of the use of his second leg, landing him in a wheel chair. Broken Vessels is a book of essays he published in the wake of that impact. The title essay, “Broken Vessels,” which is also the final essay in the book, begins this way:

On the twenty-third of June, a Thursday afternoon in 1988, I lay on my bed and looked out the sliding glass doors at blue sky and green poplars and I wanted to die. . .

“Broken Vessels” is an essay saturated with loss. The loss of running. The loss of walking. The loss of his wife and children. (He underwent a separation after the accident.) The loss of writing—which happened after he’d lost his family.

But the essay is not only about loss. The essay points to what is possible when one can find the right place to express this loss in some way. p. 171:

The best person for a crippled man to cry with is a good female physical therapist, and the best place to do that crying is in the area where she works. One morning in August of 1987, shuffling with my right leg and the walker, with Mrs. T in front of me and her kind younger assistants, Kathy and Betty, beside me, I began to cry. Moving across the long therapy room with beds, machines, parallel bars, and exercise bicycles, I said through my weeping: I’m not a man among men anymore and I’m not a man among women either. Kathy and Betty gently told me I was fine. Mrs. T said nothing, backing ahead of me, watching my leg, my face, my body. We kept working. I cried and talked all the way into the small room with two beds that are actually leather-cushioned tables with a sheet and pillow on each, and the women helped me onto my table, and Mrs. T went to the end of it, to my foot, and began working on my ankle and toes and calf with her gentle strong hands. Then she looked up at me. Her voice has much peace whose resonance is her own pain she has moved through and beyond. It’s in Jeremiah, she said. The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it, and makes a new vessel. You can’t make a new vessel out of broken one. It’s time to find the real you.

The cab-driver in Chekhov’s story needed to tell what clothes his son was wearing when he died. Dubus had his own story that he needed to tell: I’m not a man among men anymore and I’m not a man among women either.

And, perhaps one of the most remarkable things about his essay, this story is heard. Mrs. T. does not interrupt. She does not offer false reassurance. She does not even try to argue with him, though she could, certainly, have made a number of legitimate arguments. (By whose definition is a crippled man not a man? By what rules? Who is it that gets to define what a man is?) Mrs. T’s genius is in her initial silence. And it’s only after Dubus has finished speaking that she offers not an argument, but, simply, an image: The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it and makes a new vessel.

Dubus is entirely free to reject the image or accept it. The image is simply put out there. Image as invitation rather than argument: The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it and makes a new vessel.

Dubus begins in June looking out at those poplars, unable to write—and wanting to die. We know, because he has written this essay, that he became a man who could write again. It would seem that Mrs. T. had something to do with that. A woman who was able to hear—and help him hold—his grief. And that image she offers: that smashed pot. That new vessel.

November 21, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #15: Listing What Remains

This writing idea springs directly from the passage by Andre Dubus that I posted above. Because it occurs to me that before embracing what remains it might sometimes be helpful, simply, to list it.

You can make a list of what remains. And then you can, if you like, take this list and carry it with you. You could carry it with you through the holidays. You could carry it in a wallet—or in a purse—or in your pocket. You could, I suppose, write it in tiny print and fold it and place it in a locket. And then you would always have it there with you—like a reminder—what remains.

On Gratitude and Embracing What Remains

I was looking for something to put up about loss and gratitude before taking a brief break for the Thanksgiving holiday and then I remembered this from the end of Andre Dubus’ essay, “Broken Vessels,” (which I wrote about earlier this week).

The passage can be found on p. 194 of Broken Vessels, this the next to the last page of the essay, and the book.

A week ago I read again The Old Man and the Sea, and learned from it that, above all, our bodies exist to perform the condition of our spirits: our choices, our desires, our loves. My physical mobility and my little girls have been taken from me; but I remain. So my crippling is a daily and living sculpture of certain truths: we receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after the losses. No one can do this alone, for being absolutely alone finally means a life not only without people or God or both to love, but without love itself. In The Old Man and Sea, Santiago is a widower and a man who prays; but the love that fills and sustains him is of life itself: living creatures, and the sky, and the sea. Without that love, he would be an old man alone in a boat.

I like the language Dubus uses here—the way, sometimes, we have to work to “achieve” gratitude—the way this might not always come naturally—but still it can come—at least at moments--and sometimes those moments can be enough: moments in which we are able to embrace what remains.

November 27, 2006

Four Chambers for Tyler David Tandeski: A Featured Piece

[I am very pleased to introduce this poem submitted by Danielle Crawford, a young woman at Fairhaven College in western Washington state. She began writing this poem while in her first "official" poetry class, four months ago, and she is now, she tells me, passionately pursuing a double major in creative writing and fine art.] Four Chambers for Tyler David Tandeski In memoriam [October 1, 1999] I. It stinks like cotton swabs turned cold beside Mother’s under-ripe belly. Six months have passed. She sits, waits: hunched, hurt on that inhospitable bed. I can’t tell her this, but she’s aged a decade in a day. Never looked so frail: a daisy, withered by the worst of winters. The October sky— Mom’s crying again, laying above peppered linoleum, under so many lights there’s nowhere left to hide. She’s naked, barren beneath the gown. I try to resist, but join her, weep. * The doctor’s eyes are dull with mock concern. I, twelve, confused, want to escape. In their crisply clean uniforms— uniform sterility— they stare, then speak: The human heart has four chambers… How were we to know God gave you only two? * Years of wait and worry plagued my parents. Mom’s stiff as the starchy parchment paper she’s now lying on. Emotions repressed, her words are strangled: It’s done. II. Did we make the right choice? After the initial miracle of you, I guess we believed in invincibility. An age-old wish, the desire to rewind. Would it have been selfish—? We thought of the steps you never took. We kissed the ground you never set foot upon. Since you’ve been gone, we’ve lost our footing, our solid ground. I try to picture what you’d be like now. I’ve dressed your name up in costumes, cloaked your memory with denial, anguish, rage… anything I could muster, paralyzed. I don’t wish to remember you this way. I’m back where I began: without a clue. The cotton, the clothing, that cold room, my memory, too— it’s all too white. I can’t help but wonder if, taken, you took color from our lives. ‘99. Now seven more. You would be eight, Tyler, had you survived half a heart and Down Syndrome. I’m greedy; I want you next to me. You still are my brother. I think of you, whose footprint—only an inch!— left a lasting imprint. The human heart has four chambers… Your heart was stronger than mine for letting you go. We need your malformed heart to mend our own.

December 22, 2006

Whatever Leads to Joy

The book, What the Living Do, was written by Marie Howe in the wake of her brother’s death from AIDS. It’s a book that, perhaps better than any other book I know, walks that delicate balance between making memorial—remembering who and what has been lost—and choosing life in the wake of such loss—figuring out, day by day, what it is that the living do (after). There’s joy in the book—and in the poem—but it’s that bittersweet kind of joy—

The poem, “My Dead Friends,” can be found here.

The poem consists of only thirteen lines. Here are six of them:

I have begun,

when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question

to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear. . .

They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling—whatever leads
to joy, they always answer. . .

February 08, 2007


One of three places that I've come across Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese, in the last month or so was as a kind of epigraph—before the table of contents—to the poetry anthology, Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley.  The anthology, first published in Britain, is one I would recommend, and I’ll probably get around to writing about it more here on this site one of these days.  Meanwhile, today, I wanted to draw your attention to one particular poem that I found in the anthology—a poem called “Sweetness,” by Stephen Dunn.

The poem is freely available on the web, this because of a project--Poetry Out Loud--which encourages high school students to memorize and recite poetry.
The poem can be found here.
(Incidentally, if you want to browse the poetry on their site you can click here.  They have a fairly extensive online collection---)

But back to the poem, Sweetness—the first seven lines—

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
     has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it. . .

Nice, huh?

The poem makes me think, among other things, of that bag of tomatoes and that rotisserie chicken in Eighteen Ways of Looking at Cancer.  But any way you look at it, I think maybe he’s onto something-----

May 07, 2007

The Last Chinese Chef [Part Two]: Food for the Soul

[This is a continuation of yesterday’s post on the novel, The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones, which has just been released.]

There’s one passage in particular—a conversation between Maggie and Sam Liang, the chef, that I think fits in especially well during this month in which I’m writing about healing conversation. This particular conversation occurs as one of a series of conversations that they have while Sam is cooking and Maggie is watching him cook. Sam has prepared a chicken, Chinese-style, and he offers some of the chicken to Maggie and she begins to eat the chicken and, as she does so, feels herself begin to “melt with comfort.”

She speaks:

”Are you going to make this for the banquet?”

“No,” he said. “This I made for you.”

She looked up quickly.

“These are flavors for you, right now,” he explained, “to benefit you. Ginger and cilantro and chives; they’re very powerful. Very healing.”

“Healing of what?” she said, and put her chopsticks down. . .

“Grief,” he said.

”Grief?” The unpleasant nest of everything she felt pressed up against the surface, sadness, shame, anger. . . Her voice, when it came out, sounded bewildered. “You’re treating me for grief?”

“No,” he insisted, “I’m cooking for you. There’s a difference.”

She tried to master the upheavals inside her. She would not cry in front of him. “Maybe you should have asked me first.”


“It’s a bit difficult for me.”

“Well, for that I’m sorry. Forgive me. You’re American and I should have thought of that. Here, this is how we’re trained—to know the diner, perceive the diner, and cook accordingly. Feed the body, but that’s only the beginning. Also feed the mind and the soul.”

There. That’s it. I think that's what Nicole Mones is doing especially well in this book. She’s touched that aspect of culture--of Chinese culture in this case--that feeds the soul. And she’s found a way to translate that into the writing itself—into this novel—

There’s a sense in which, in her grief, Maggie, the central character, is longing for a kind of food, a kind of conversation, that she doesn’t even quite know that she’s longing for—until it appears—and then she is able to be comforted by it. Here is how Nicole Mones describes the feeling of comfort that blooms inside Maggie after she eats that chicken: “It put a roof over her head and a patterned warmth around her so that even though all her anguish was still with her it became, for a moment, something she could bear.”

. . . even though all her anguish was still with her it became, for a moment, something she could bear.

At its best, I think this is what healing conversation--and sometimes healing books--and healing poems--can do.