Month 8: Making a Place for Grief
There’s a story by Anton Chekhov entitled, simply, “Grief”–also sometimes called “Misery”–which speaks beautifully, I think, to what grief may require–and to how the process of writing might contribute to the healing of grief. Not so much the erasure of grief. And not, certainly, the erasure of memories. But the healing of grief.
I’ve included a brief piece about this story below. I’ve also included links to a brief summary of the research on writing about grief, several writing ideas, and a list of a few books.
I. The Chekhov Story
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?
II. Research on Writing About Grief
III. Advice about Writing to Heal Grief
IV. Writing Ideas for Healing Grief
V. Poems that might offer company during grief
The Guest House by Rumi
Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye
A Ritual to Read to Each Other by William Stafford
Satellite Call by Sara Bareilles
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
The Armful by Robert Frost
The Spell by Marie Howe
Talking to Grief by Denise Levertov
Sweetness by Stephen Dunn
My Dead Friends by Marie Howe
VI. Resources for Writing to Heal Grief
Here I’m including brief pieces I’ve written on selected books and websites that can offer company in the healing of grief.
On Broken Vessels. A collection of essays by Andre Dubus.
On When Things Fall Apart. A collection of brief essays by the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron.
And some more recent pieces on grief below—–
There’s something about this poem. A haunting kind of repetition. It’s a poem about loss and trying to wrap one’s mind around it—trying to master it. It’s about considering loss as an art—which suggests that somehow the loss can be transformed. Can become something of value? Something beautiful? (And how exactly?) The poem begins with a loss as ordinary as the loss of keys and then begins to expand outward from there—the loss of hours, cities, rivers, an entire continent. It’s a poem, perhaps, best heard because the sound of...
Sometimes when I’m at a loss for words it helps to come across other’s words, and just this morning I came across a treasure trove of poems at, of all places, a website of the Frye Museum, an art museum in Seattle, where they hold a weekly mindfulness meditation session on Wednesdays, and have published some poems and pieces they’ve used at these sessions. Here is one piece that seems particularly illuminating this morning. It’s not a poem, but it’s like a poem—a healing story as short as any...
A couple weeks back I wrote about William Stafford’s poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” and those lines that seem like such clear instructions: the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe— should be clear; the darkness around us is deep. After writing about the poem, this song, “Satellite Call” by Sara Bareilles, came to mind. Itself a poem. It seems to me as if in these lyrics Bareilles is following William Stafford’s instructions. Sending out a satellite call into and across the darkness: You may find...
I came across this poem thanks to Daniel Sperry, a cellist who has been working on a CD of William Stafford poetry combined with cello music. In his Kickstarter campaign, which I stumbled across (and which is now fully funded) he includes a few lines from William Stafford’s poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” which I don’t believe I’ve ever heard before. It inspired me to go find the whole poem. The poem begins: If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know...
For some reason a couple weeks ago, I found myself looking for the quote by Julian of Norwich about all being well. I found this: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well which T.S. Eliot then included in the fourth quartet of his Four Quartets: And all shall be well and All manner of thing shall be well And I also found, unexpectedly, this song, which I quite like, by a young man by the name of Gabe Dixon....