Can Writing about Grief Make You Happy?March 10th, 2011 by bakerkline
It might sound crazy, but for Allison Gilbert, writing about mourning has been an uplifting experience:
Several weeks ago my new book, Parentless Parents, was published. This is the third book I’ve written that deals with mourning and loss. And while you might assume I’d be the last person you’d want to meet at a cocktail party, I’ve been told otherwise. I smile; I laugh. You might even call me bubbly.
Each book I’ve written is the result of successfully pushing through an unwanted and unanticipated experience – and using that experience for something more powerful than anger and self-pity. Writing about death and grief has been healing for me.
I wrote my first book, Covering Catastrophe, after nearly dying on 9/11. I was a producer at WNBC-TV in New York at the time, and when the second tower collapsed I thought I was going to be buried alive. The dust cloud knocked me off my feet, and emergency crews dragged me off the street so I wouldn’t be crushed by falling debris. I was taken by ambulance to the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital. Doctors cut off my clothes to examine my skin, and shoved tubes down my throat so I could breathe.
Physically, I was fine. Emotionally, though, I was in trouble. I had panic attacks for days, and many journalists I’d later speak with were also having traumatic flashbacks. Because of what we experienced, three other radio and television journalists and I decided to write a book documenting what it was like to be a broadcaster that day, both personally and professionally. Creating this book was cathartic for all of us, and what happened after publication was even better. Covering Catastrophe was turned into a documentary by the U.S. State Department, has been recognized by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and every penny earned has been donated to 9/11 charities. Giving back is the best emotional Band-Aid I know.
Three days after September 11, my father died of cancer. I was 31 years old. Almost immediately (and because my mother had died several years earlier) I felt compelled to write about my parents’ deaths. Always Too Soon was hard to write because for the five years it took to complete, my parents’ deaths were always with me. I had to deal with how much I missed them with every period and comma I typed. What kept me going was the anticipation of helping others cope with the same pain. My muse was an imaginary group of readers who needed comfort and validation.
And readers responded. Men and women emailed me wanting to talk about being an adult orphan. Many of these emails specifically addressed the challenges of being a parent without parents. To manage the influx of emails, I began sorting them by state and city, and then, when I had two or three from any one area, I started playing matchmaker. It was in putting these strangers together that Parentless Parents, the organization, was formed. It was also how I knew that Parentless Parents, the book, needed to be written.
In Parentless Parents, I write not only about how the loss of my parents affects me, but also the myriad ways their absence affects my children, who don’t have my mother and father as grandparents. Since the book came out, it’s been warmly embraced. Parentless Parents support groups are taking shape all over the country. The Parentless Parents Group Page on Facebook continues to grow. And then there are the new emails I’ve been receiving from readers, like this one from a mother of two young children:
“You tapped right into my life, my heart and my soul. It is comforting to know that at least one other person in the world has gone through similar tragedies and has some understanding of what I deal with on a daily basis.”
In truth, I’m happy in the face of what I write because I have an outlet for all my feelings. Conducting interviews, leading focus groups, creating the Parentless Parents Survey, the first of its kind, and writing – all of it has brought me incredible peace. My upbeat attitude has been shaped by creating a new and different conversation about loss, and the symbiotic relationship I have with my readers. Ultimately, the most important lesson I’ve learned from writing is that I’m not alone.
Allison Gilbert, author of Parentless Parents, founded a nationwide network of parents who have experienced the loss of their own mothers and fathers. To find a Parentless Parents chapter near you, go to www.parentlessparents.com. You can also join Parentless Parents on Facebook by clicking here: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=77976059211&ref=ts. Watch her book trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0vYt8L7qNg. Allison is also the author of Always Too Soon and Covering Catastrophe.