On Writing to Give Grief Meaning and Write Out of Challenging Situations

Author Lily Dulan explains why writers have to be willing to go to difficult places inside themselves for their writing to make a positive impact on ourselves, others, and the world.
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Trigger warning: SIDS

Giving Grief Meaning needed to be written so that I could begin to live and write again, and truly help others in a meaningful way. As Maya Angelou writes, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

This was certainly true for me. As a teen and young adult, I had dozens of spiral notebooks lined with adolescent scrawl, its pages filled with things I felt that I couldn’t change at such a tender age. Years later I wrote myself sober when I admitted one day with a shaking hand that I was “drinking so much a sailor would croak.” I must have read that line over and over again until I could admit to myself that I actually had a problem and seek outside help. Writing as a therapeutic process helped me discover what I needed to change.

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Through telling my story on the page, I finally sobered up and the pain of being a prisoner to alcohol ceased. Soon after, my husband and I decided to have a child. It was a rough pregnancy, but I thanked God that my biological clock hadn’t run out as we welcomed our baby girl Kara a few months shy of my 40th birthday. In addition to devoting myself to motherhood, through sobriety I now had a master's degree in clinical psychology and a background working as a therapist in addiction. I had planned on writing a memoir based on recovery for a long time. Little did I know that my writing and life plans would come to a halt.

(Lily Dulan: Kindness, Alignment, Regeneration, and Action)

Tragedy Strikes Without Warning

Two months later, in a seemingly wicked twist of fate, our precious two-month-old infant daughter died at home in the middle of the night. She was sleeping in her crib beside us and she never woke up. The experts named the cause SIDS, and life as I knew it was blown to bits.

For the first time in my life, even the page couldn’t save me. In that soul-sucking darkness, I experienced genuine writer's block. Over and over again, exhausted I tried to write my story, but grief was like walking through mud in a fuzzy and heavy-laden dream, unable to wake up.

Today many of us feel like we are living in a collective nightmare as the pandemic has changed our day-to-day lives. We have lost a great deal, whether it is dashed plans and dreams, a job, a home, or loved ones—we are all struggling. How can writing as a wellness practice help with life challenges? How do we find our way back to the page and to life when we are lost?

Ironically, it was through embracing not knowing where I was going and committing to self-healing practices that my work emerged. It was out of the darkness that my memoir Giving Grief Meaning and my Name Work Method which encourages writing as a form of self-exploration would finally begin to take shape.

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KARA Principles

What I didn’t know at the time was that this period of feeling stuck was a part of the process. At first, instead of writing, I took bubble baths and later laid on my yoga mat in restorative yoga poses breathing ujjayi breaths in through the nose and out through the nose. I took slow walks in the mountains near our home when I could—and gradually, qualities began to emerge from my daughter’s name: Kara, K-A-R-A.

I didn’t know then, but writing about these qualities would lead me back to the page in a new and informed way. Here is how KARA looked in my mind’s eye:

  • K is for Kindness
  • A is for Alignment
  • R is for regeneration
  • A is for Action

My curiosity around the qualities paved the way for my book Giving Grief Meaning and the healing work which I call the Name Work. It was through the love of Kara and the qualities that slowly emerged through her name that I was later able to write with wild abandon and with a sort of luminous clarity that I had never felt before. I would eventually be able to show others how to work with and write about their chosen names and the qualities they discovered.

(How Writing About Loss Helps You Heal)

The WRITE Process

If you are stuck or just want to get your creative juices flowing, I invite you to do a Name Work writing exercise for the word WRITE. This process of rigorous questioning can be applied to fiction and non-fiction alike.

W is for willing. Ask yourself how you are willing to grow on your writing journey. Are you willing to write without a destination, for the love of writing itself? Are you willing to move towards the unknown? What scares you the most and why? If stuck, can you commit to writing for just 20 minutes a day without a plan or direction? Or write a minimum of three “morning pages” as Julia Cameron advocates without stopping to censor or edit? Is there anything that is keeping you stuck? Write about a time that you became willing to try something new. Did it change you? How and why?

R is for regenerate. What does self-care look like for you? Ask yourself. How can I integrate self-care into my writing and life process? Am I able to go somewhere unfamiliar to spark my creativity and write about what I see? Am I comfortable taking time to do new things that help me to, write, pause, and regenerate? Am I comfortable with silence? Am I comfortable listening to my heartbeat and breath and tapping into what I am feeling? I invite you to stop and take ten breaths in your own way. What did you feel? If you are not writing, how can you better make space for yourself to write? Are you willing to clean out a closet and write about the feelings that come up? What items are in your character’s closets or on their bookshelves?

I is for intimate. Ask yourself, "How can I be more intimate or revealing on the page? Is there anything I am scared to talk about? Am I comfortable writing about death, sadness, fear? What hurts me the most? What am I most afraid of? And why? If I am writing fiction, what are my character's greatest fears? What are their best memories? Their trials and tribulations?" Ask yourself, "Was I a happy child? What about my characters?"

T is for trust. Do I trust myself? Do I trust others? Write about a time when your trust was broken in some way. Do my characters trust? If you could trust that you were able to live forever in perfect health, what would you try?

E is for energy. What activities sap my writing energy? What restores my energy and why? Are there people, places, or things that I could engage less with? What restores my energy? Am I overly dependent on television, food, alcohol, or drugs? If I overconsume, can I stop this behavior for a few weeks and write about what comes up? How do my characters move through life? How do they show up in relationships?

(How does your writing practice benefit you?)

Through answering questions like these, I become better able to explore my inner world, the world of my characters, and write for the love of writing. It may sound cliché, but for me, writing is really less about where I think I’m going and more about what I discover along the way. Through taking time to pause and answer the challenging questions, which are included in The Name Work, I am able to ultimately create a sense of inspired direction filled with supportive affirmations that help me on my writing and life journey.

There is a dictionary of affirmations at the back of my book to help get you started writing your own. If it feels right, I invite you to affirm with me, “I am willing to grow and develop as a writer and reach out to others on my writing journey.” I hope my Name Work method will serve as a writing and self-discovery tool for you as you continue on the writing path.

Research, interview, and explore the subjects that interest you. Then write about what you've learned in Writing Nonfiction 101: Fundamentals. Writing nonfiction is a great way for beginner and experienced writers to break into the publishing industry.

Research, interview, and explore the subjects that interest you. Then write about what you've learned in Writing Nonfiction 101: Fundamentals. Writing nonfiction is a great way for beginner and experienced writers to break into the publishing industry.

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