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