When I started the Women’s Writing Circle in 2009, my memoir about the untimely death of my husband from cancer was in an early draft. Although it had been thirteen years since his death, grief lingered. Reading what I wrote to others in the Circle felt healing. I found that going back and sorting through all that happened before and just after his death was not only cathartic but enlightening. Who was that girl who dreamed of Prince Charming riding up on his white horse one day? How did that impact my reaction to his cancer and the effects the disease had on my marriage?
Grief, we often hear, takes time to pass. But how much time and why do some people remain rooted in their loss, while others find a way to move on? So it was with interest that I read that prolonged grief—defined as ruminating over the death of a loved one (or even a pet) for longer than a year—has now been classified a clinical disorder in the DSM5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) – the bible of modern psychiatry. Rather than classified as depression, grief, according to psychiatrists, is more closely linked to trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
As a writer, I found a natural pathway to understanding the depth of my grief. Once I began writing about John and my love for him, I felt as if he were in the room listening. Listening is important because no judgments are made, rather one talks and another listens. Writing led back to my background. My parents celebrated fifty-five years of marriage, after all, so I felt my marriage would stand the test of time, too. I had these naïve notions that a man could save me and that a marriage lasted forever, when, in fact, the hard truth was that nothing lasts forever. And no one could save me, but me. As I wrote about what I endured right before and after his death, I found myself connecting the dots, so to speak. And although I did go to a professional grief counselor for several months, it was the writing that gleaned the most valuable insights. I did not want to be a widow in black the rest of my life, nor could I quickly move on. I began to accept that John was irreplaceable. Between the anger and guilt that came with wanting the ordeal of his seven-year battle with cancer to end, I felt the deepest sense of loss. I was six months pregnant at the time of his diagnosis of terminal cancer. As radiation and chemotherapy treatments upended every aspect of our lives, until finally leading to his dialysis and eventual death, I look back on these years as a survivor of PTSD.
The writing led to the realization that loss was rooted in my grief of shattered dreams that we would grow old together. He was, after all, my best friend, my confidant, my lover and husband and the father of my children. The writing also revealed just how lucky I had been to find true love. And, paradoxically, how unlucky to lose him so young. This paradox is at the root of faith. Life is a mystery. It is not ours to question why. I had just turned forty-four at the time of his death. We only had seventeen years together.
If prolonged grief is considered a “clinical disorder”, as the new diagnosis suggests, my instinct is to say that people are not machines. Everyone proceeds at their own pace and in their own time to work through loss. But what I can say assuredly is that writing offers a path forward, a tutorial if you will. It shows us where we have been and where we might be going. I have seen this happen many times in our Women’s Writing Circle. Someone will write about the death of a child, a spouse, a parent, a beloved dog and when they read their work to a group of empathetic listeners, it is as if the weight has begun to lift. Writing helps unlock grief, move toward renewed hope. In grief’s wake, we remember the blessing that is love.
Here’s a link to the New York Times article: “How Long Should It Take to Grieve? Psychiatry Has Come Up With an Answer” :https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/18/health/prolonged-grief-disorder.html