I’m new to death.
Early in my life, death was a peripheral thing: it happened to my friends’ grandparents and to classmates I didn’t know very well. Though my family buried two cousins, we were all young and their parents’ grief was obscure and diluted for me.
As an adult, I lost one grandmother with whom I’d had very little contact and then the other who had been a dear friend. In the past year, my father-in-law has lost two of his good friends and the son of one of those friends. And now his sister, our sweet Aunt Carolyn Sue, has passed.
I write through death. I write because it allows me to get perspective on the emotions running wild within me. When I write, I organize words and sentences and paragraphs into a particular rhythm and tone. When I write, I have purpose and focus.
I wrote for my Nana, tried to memorialize her. I wrote about the one-year-later feeling when life has gone on without the person we’ve lost. I wrote about the worst day of someone else’s life. I wrote for one friend when her Nana died and for another when his stepfather passed.
My first novel is about a twenty-two-year-old kid whose best friend commits suicide. In that book, I wrote about death when it is shocking and confusing.
When I write about death, it’s usually from an arm’s distance. I am observing the way others process their grief. When I write about death I don’t try to understand it or rationalize it. I simply record what I’m seeing and infer what others are feeling.
Writing can be cathartic. It can help the writer expunge herself of emotion; simply bleed on the page and the work will be authentic. But when I write about death, I feel more matter-of-fact than emotional. All things that live must die; I know this and take comfort in it. To everything there is a season, a purpose, and then it is over.
My latest short story is about a man whose four-year-old son has cancer. In that story, the threat of the child’s death is the antagonist. When I write death as a possibility, I’m reminded how grateful I am to be human. I write that gratitude into my characters. I refuse to let them take their lives for granted: be more, do more, say more, feel more.
Characters die. They are not people. Their deaths provide motivation, complicate relationships, and force choices. When real people die, motivations, relationships, and choices all still occur. Loss changes us all.
Writing about death means writing about change. I’m getting more acquainted with the process. I’m learning to prepare for loss, to make time before to share what I can with the people around me: Be more, do more, say more, feel more.
I’m learning to write about death without cliché or hysterics. Capturing change and dignity are my purpose and focus. I’m new to death but I’m learning.