How to Get Back to Writing After a Death in the Family

How to Get Back to Writing After a Death in the Family

2013 was a good writing year.

At least, for me: I wrote and self-published two books, began writing a third and had articles published as well. I was proud of what I’d accomplished and was determined to ride the momentum to make 2014 even better.

I set my goals, made my plans, and on January 1st, I was off to the races.

Then one morning in mid-February, I got the news that a cherished family member had died.

All my writing progress came to a grinding halt.

Losing the Writing Mojo

My family member’s passing wasn’t unexpected – she’d been very sick – but her death still hit me hard. I had just seen her a few days prior, and I never imagined that it would be the last time I’d see her.

I was stunned. I felt completely numb… alone and anonymous as I sat with tears rolling down my face.

I didn’t wallow in my sorrow long, though. I pulled myself together in just a few minutes and forced myself back to “reality”. After all, there were phone calls to be made, emails to write and arrangements to make.

There was no time to fall apart. And I was fine.

Or so I thought, until later that day when I sat down to write. The words were gone. It felt stupid, even trivial, to try to write after what had happened. And in the days that followed, I ignored my work and the drafts that sat on my desk unedited.

I’d lost all my writing mojo.

Grief Can Be Scary

Trying to write when you’re emotionally unavailable is like trying to race a Formula 1 car with no engine. It just doesn’t work.

I went about my days as usual, not allowing myself to feel what needed to be felt. I spent a lot of time denying my mourning. In a strange way, it was as if holding on to the grief: If I didn’t mourn, then no one was gone, right?

I refused to grieve, terrified of the emotions that nagged at the edges of my consciousness. I was afraid to give them free rein, scared of them taking over if I so much as acknowledged their existence. I told myself I had to be strong.

My writing suffered. Because I wasn’t letting my emotions out, nothing came through. No imagination, no creativity… nothing.

Emotions Need Release

A few days before the funeral, I was asked to create a slideshow of images that would play during the viewing. I gathered pictures together and began scanning them into my computer.

I tried mightily to pretend that this was just like any other presentation. But each image of happier times eroded my foolish “be strong” resolve… and the floodgates broke.

I couldn’t see the computer screen through my tears. Painful as it was, that moment became the beginning of my mourning period. I was finally truthful with myself about my feelings, and I let myself experience them in full force.

With that release, with that honesty, came the ability to write again.

Releasing emotion permits you to write – bottle them up and feel nothing, and your creative well becomes constrained and restricted. Words won’t come out, or they’ll feel hollow and stifled.

Good writers allow themselves to feel. They don’t fear their emotions; they use them to create.

Tips to Get Yourself through It

Allowing yourself to feel your emotions can be fantastic when the moment is joyous or jubilant, but the release of sadness can often be far more difficult. Here’s what I’ve learned – and I hope it helps you, should you ever experience grief and need to get through it.

Get out of your own way

Simple advice, I know, and possibly easier said than done. Forget what others will think of you, or how you look to them. Get out of your own way, and give yourself permission to grieve.  Creativity simply can’t flow if there’s a blockage that holds it back, so feel what you need to feel, freely.

Don’t force it

If you find you can’t write because the grief is temporarily too much to bear, then don’t force it. Staring at a blank screen or pushing yourself to write when it’s the last thing you want to do can only make the situation worse. Be gentle with yourself; your writing mojo will come back when you’re ready and it’s time.

Take care of you

When someone we love passes on, we often try to be strong for others. We support our spouses, children, other family members, even friends… and we often come last. You can’t support your family properly if you’re constantly on the verge of a breakdown from bottled-up grieving, so let someone else fill that caregiver role, and give yourself permission to take time for yourself.

Read plenty

Reading does for writers what supplements do for athletes. It makes us stronger, replenishes us, provides rest and respite, and gives us inspiration for our own work. During a period of mourning, reading can be a kind of therapy. The words, plots, timing, dialogue and scenes of other authors can become a familiar, stable place in a world turned upside down.

It honestly won’t be long before you feel the urge – no, the need – to produce your own words again.

Death may be a natural part of our lives, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. There’s nothing about coping with the passing of a loved one that comes naturally to us. Those left behind after someone we care for passes on are left with memories, ghosts of happier times.

It’s a time made even harder when we force ourselves to pick up the pieces and jump right back into the hundred-mile-per-hour pace of our lives.

Don’t. Take time to grieve, and allow yourself to feel the emotions. It lets you do the work of processing that there’s a new empty space in your life. It allows you to come to terms with it and lets you slowly rejoin the world, where you’ll be able to create words again.

Post by Hugh Smith

Hugh O. Smith is a dad, writer, and Director at a NYC consulting firm. He credits his misspent youth working as a bouncer in some of New York's most renowned clubs with preparing him for the writing life, but not at all for the rigors of parenthood. You can see more of his work at HughOSmith.com.

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  1. Hugh,

    I appreciated your writing what you did. I have not had a recent death in my family, but I have deployed and am away from my family.
    I came over to Okinawa with some writing & reading goals. I have not been motivated to do either. Reading your words gives me hope that the words will come again and have helped me see my need to renew my reading of the words of others.

    Thanks for your post.

    • Greg, I don’t pretend to know how it feels to be deployed thousands of miles away from the ones you love but I can imagine that that feeling is its own form of grief. And, just like any feeling of grief we have to work through it. I know that you will and you when you do, you will attain all your reading and writing goals. The words WILL come again.
      All the best to you, my friend, thank you for writing and thank you so so much for your service.
      Hugh

  2. Hi Hugh,

    Thanks for this great post. I can totally relate to it. I lost my eldest brother, Devdas, about 18 months ago and I’m still coming to terms with my deep sense of loss. I miss him tremendously. As Kahlil Gibran says, “Love knows not its own depths until the hour of separation.”

    Like you, I’ve found that the best way to heal myself is through writing. I published my first Kindle e-book (200 Humorous Tweetable Quotations) and dedicated it to his memory. He would have liked it because he delighted in sharing jokes with everyone.

    Wherever he is now, he’s making it a better place.

    • Hi Rohi,
      I’m so sorry to hear of your brother’s passing. However, I’m happy to see that you were able to create and publish your first Kindle book. That is a huge accomplishment, congratulations! I bet he is so very proud. That, I think, is probably the greatest thing you could have done to honor his memory.
      Thank you very much for your comment, I really appreciate it. Hang in there, and keep writing.
      All the best,
      Hugh.

  3. Rebecca Magnus says:

    Hi Hugh,

    Great article, I really relate to this. My father passed away when I was 16 and just beginning to explore my creativity and passion for writing. I completely shut off emotionally and haven’t engaged in anything for creative for ten years because I have been too afraid to open up ‘that box’. After my 26th birthday in March, I’ve finally started to reengage emotionally and creatively, which has actually prompted me to quit my sales job and pursue a creative career in advertising. I’m building my portfolio at the moment! Its been such a relief to experience the emotional release, I wish I had been able to permit myself to feel the emotions sooner but I guess everyone has to make their own journey with it.

    I hope others reading this article will take some comfort that they will be able to write again, and take less than ten years to put pen to paper!

    • Hello Rebecca,
      You’re so right, everyone has their own journey, and I’m glad that you’re able to begin your creative journey at last. You’re doing what many of us dream of doing, quit a job that we do not love, and do what moves us. Congratulations on the beginning of your journey and on being able to move on, I bet your dad would have been so proud of you!
      Thank you Rebecca! Good luck in your new career.

  4. Writing can be a valuable outlet to release the suffocating emotions you’re experiencing. I find, when life hits me hard my writing becomes stronger than ever, but everyone handles loss differently. I channel all that pain and anguish onto the page and use it as a healing instrument. I lost my entire family, except my brother, by age nineteen, so I know how crippling grief can be. My thoughts and prayers go out to you. I’m glad you are using your talent to help you heal. Good luck, and God bless.

    • Thank you for your kind wishes Sue, they are much appreciated.
      I am so sorry for the loss of your family. Crippling is not the word to describe something like that. I mean it when I say that I am in awe of people like you who can go on, create, and thrive after experiencing such loss. The strength involved must be gigantic. As you say, channeling it onto the page is part of the process as I’ve also found.
      Good luck and God bless to you and your brother as well, Sue, thank you for sharing.
      Hugh

  5. There is so much to process just in daily life, let alone with grief…. I think that, as with everything, having an honest and open discussion and ‘here’s how I did it’ set of options gives others a chance to find their own way through the minefield of that process called grief. As always my friend, I love how you take a complex situation and offer some easy to understand (if not practice) steps for others to try.

    • Hi Gaele, thanks for commenting.
      While grief is a universally shared emotion for humanity, the experience of it can be so individual. But one thing is true for all of us, someone sharing “here’s how I did it” can be a great comfort. I had the great good fortune to benefit from some great advice during my time of need that helped me immensely.

  6. I had a hard time getting back into writing after my wife had passed away. I can totally relate to this article, and it covers a lot of great information. Thank you!

    • Julian, I’m so sorry to hear of your wife’s passing. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to even think about writing after her passing. It takes real courage to write again after such a life-altering event. I hope your writing is now going well. All the best my friend, thank you for commenting.

  7. Thanks for this. I read it a few days ago but didn’t have the time to comment until now (saw it on James’ FB page and was reminded).

    I’ve lost 5 “family members” in the last 7 years or so–dogs and cats. Might sound crazy, but two cats were elderly and it was to be expected, and the rest–cancer for a middle-age/older dog and a cat and a heart attack (of sorts) for another (youngish) dog recently–it happens.

    I put quotes around “family members” because not everyone thinks like that. But for those of us who love our pets like family members, the grief can be just as overwhelming.

    It was good to read something on this for writers, and I agree: we have to grieve and feel what we feel or we’ll be all stopped up. When my young boxer dog Missy (age 6) died suddenly from a genetic heart problem 7-8 weeks ago, I was devastated, but I carried on. She had collapsed a month prior and had medication, so at least I knew she was at risk. I cried and wailed and all that, but I focused on the freelance editing work I do to get my mind off of it (plus earn needed income). Plus a few blog posts. But creative stuff, a novel I’m working on–no.

    I cried a little every day but it wasn’t too bad. I figured I’ve got used to it or more accepting of the inevitable loss from experience (we don’t send our pets to college like we do kids; we see them off at the end of their lives, unfortunately, and you have to deal with it, after all).

    But what I really wanted to do was curl up into a ball and be depressed for awhile. Sleep. Shut down. Think of her. I needed to process events–it was so unexpected. I thought she’d be fine with her medication. And that’s what won. I just couldn’t write anymore. Couldn’t care about anything except for a few really bright lights in my life that felt really good while I sort of came up for air once in awhile. I functioned–I have another dog to care for and myself, of course–but I had to go through a few weeks of ignoring people and not talking to hardly anyone and just keeping to myself (even online–read favorite blogs? Not happening). I just had to hide and grieve.

    I’m feeling better now, though not completely. It will come. And I’ll get back on my writing schedule and not feel a bit guilty for not posting on my blog for way too long (yeah well!). But I was glad to read this. Validating, you know? So thanks. :)

    • Hi Leah,
      I was one of those people who would scoff at people who thought of pets as family members. Then, a few years ago, I adopted a scruffy black kitten I named Spike. I only got him because work was being done in my apt. building and the mice decided to abandon the basement and hang our in my place. Well, Spike did his job, the mice got the message but I also fell in love with that little guy. So, a couple of months later when he was diagnosed with FIP and had to be euthanized it hit very very hard. I held him as he died and he seemed so puzzled as to what was going on.
      I’ll never forget that.
      It’s funny, but your comment made me realize that I gave myself more permission and leeway to grieve for that beautiful little cat than I ever have when I’ve lost a human relative or friend.
      I wonder why that is?
      I’m so sorry about your loss, I know how you feel. I’m so glad you’re doing better though. I hope that the writing will call to you soon as it did to me.
      I really appreciate your comment Leah, it made me stop and think. So, thank YOU!
      Hugh

      • Hey Hugh,

        Sorry to take so long, but I wanted to let you know I read this soon after you posted. Busy here with work stuff that’s not writing

        So sad about your first kitty-love :( I can picture it–so puzzled, yeah. Brings up a memory. So sad to go through that so soon. I’ve joked that they don’t warn you at the shelters that they die! All I thought of–when I adopted a cat and two dogs (at different times in addition to the cats I adopted form college classmates who couldn’t keep them) was how to take care of them. Not their end-of-life issues. And after 17-18 years for those cats, 10+ for another cat and a dog, and 6 years for my most recent….yeah. We fall in love and they become a part of our lives. But unlike kids, they go before we do (well, usually).

        Maybe you could grieve more for your cat than a human because the love is so much simpler. It’s not cluttered with all sorts of history and emotions and so on. I’m not sure.

        Thanks for your kind words. I’m getting there. Seems some poetry is trying to get born out of all this (stuff just starts coming to me and won’t let go until I write it down) :) Nice to share the “stop and think” stuff, and I’ll see you around. :)

  8. I’ve never read your blog before, but, seriously, thanks for writing this article. I lost my father last month, took a break from writing, and I can say that this is good advice all around.

    • Hey L.E. I’m so sorry for your loss. I really hope you are able to get back to writing soon. Hang in there my friend, all the best. Thank you so much for sharing.
      Hugh.

  9. Hey hang in there buddy! Hope you are well. You will be fine and i will appreciate that you shared it with us.

    • Thanks Marry. I am doing well my friend. Thank you for commenting. I loved sharing it, I’m really grateful to Men With Pens for the opportunity. All the best!

  10. Hi Hugh,

    I’m sorry for your loss. I hope that you’re beyond the grieving phase and into the “fond and inspiring memories” phase. I pushed myself to work through the grief after my sudden loss, and I didn’t do myself any favors. I was so distraught I don’t even remember how I got through the first couple of weeks. Your advice is excellent.

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