How Writing About Loss Helps You Heal

In fourth grade, I decided I wanted to be a writer. One day, my teacher, Mrs. Koltnow (“It’s easy to remember,” she’d said on the first day of class. “Just think, ‘Colt now, horse later.’ ”), passed out slim, white, hardbound books. Our assignment was to fill the dozen or so empty pages with a story as well as draw the cover and a few interior pictures. We were given the rest of the class to brainstorm but I knew what I’d write about instantly: a group of young friends follow a set of railroad tracks and wind up having all sorts of crazy misadventures. Yes, I’d seen Stand by Me, and yes, I thought it was awesome—especially the part where the fat kid throws up on everybody—but I wasn’t plagiarizing. 

Sean is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Carol won.)


Guest column by Sean Manning, author of The Things
That Need Doing (Dec. 2010, Broadway), a memoir
that Publishers Weekly called “a universal story …
tremendously moving.” He is the editor of the nonfiction
anthologies The Show I’ll Never Forget, Rock and Roll
Cage Match, Top of the Order, and Bound to
Last. (See all
the anthologies here.) Sean lives in New York.

There were railroad tracks in my neighborhood my friends and I were always exploring, since way before that movie came out.  And though we never stumbled across a dead body, we did get chased by high school skinheads who hung out there drinking something called Mickey’s Big Mouth and shot at with salt pellets by
conductors for throwing rocks at their passing trains.

We had a week to finish the assignment. It took me two days  When my friends asked me to come play baseball or Nintendo after school, I refused. Working on the book was way more fun. I hardly slept and asked to take my dinner in my room. My mom didn’t drag me to the table or make me go to bed. I was a good student, but I’d never been this excited about homework. She didn’t want to do anything to discourage my passion. And after I’d turned in the book, and got an A+ and an enthusiastic note from Mrs. Koltnow, Mom bought me a journal to jot down ideas for future books.

I filled the journal about halfway.  Then one night I happened to catch the movie Breakin’ on TV. As the end credits rolled, I told Mom I was going to become a professional breakdancer.
“What about writing?” she asked.
“It’s okay, I guess. But did you see those awesome moves??” And all those cool clothes?! And, oh man, that music! No,” I said as I pitifully attempted to pop and lock, “breakdancing is my real calling.”

In my sophomore year of college, I took a Shakespeare class and once again fell in love with writing. When I called and told Mom I was switching my major to English, she simply said, “Finally.” I asked her what she meant. She reminded me of Mrs. Koltnow’s assignment.  I’d completely forgot.  “I still have that book,” she said.  “I always knew you’d become a writer.” I never heard her happier than when my last semester of college I called to tell her I’d gotten into an MFA program in New York. And I never saw her prouder than when, two years later, she sat watching me and the rest of the program’s graduates read from our theses.

Just a few days before my 27th birthday, she had a severe heart attack. I returned to Ohio, never imagining I’d remain there for over a year—Mom spending that entire time in one hospital or another, battling congestive heart failure, stomach paralysis, ventilator dependency, and lung cancer (the thing that would ultimately claim her life). I didn’t write during those months. I didn’t have any time. I was too tired. There was too much other stuff to think about.

I was there with her the morning she passed away in hospice. After kissing her, and saying a prayer, and calling the rest of the family to let them know, I asked one of the nurses for a pen and a piece of paper. There at a round, cherry wood table, I began to write her obituary for the local newspaper. It’s strange to me now that I’d do it right then.

But there was something compelling me to hurry up and get writing, as if there was some comfort to be found in it. And there was. It felt good writing the obituary, even though it was only a short paragraph. And it felt good writing an inscription for the bench we had installed along the park trail where Mom would walk with her best friend every day after work. Writing about her made it feel like she wasn’t really gone.

So when I returned to New York—motivated as well by a desire for catharsis, a hope that putting to paper all the misery I’d witnessed might stop me from thinking about it constantly or at least end the bad dreams that had me (and sometimes have me still) waking up to a tear-soaked pillow—I began to write about the days I spent with Mom in the hospital. I was lucky enough to get my memoir, The Things That Need Doing, published. And in the month it’s been out, the book’s received several positive reviews. But it’s hard to be too excited without Mom here to share in it. 

Sometimes I wonder if maybe she knew I’d write about our ordeal, and that maybe part of the reason she fought so valiantly was because she knew that every day she stayed alive, she was giving me a better story to write. Even if not, in her death, the way she died, the way she refused to die, she gave me the greatest gift any parent could ever give their child: the opportunity to fulfill their dream.

Sean is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. Youcan win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Carol won.)

Writing a memoir or life story? A great
resource is Writing Life Stories.



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42 thoughts on “How Writing About Loss Helps You Heal

  1. Laura Welser

    Thank you for sharing your story, Sean.
    I had always wanted to be a writer, but became a mother at a young age and put everything on the back burner to raise my family.
    I was with my mother constantly in her last few days that she was with us, this past July. And I started writing. I wanted to get my feelings down on paper. I needed to.
    Now, I am trying to write every day. I don’t know if I will ever be published, but I will write. My mother wanted to be a writer, but never pursued it. I will. For her and for me.

  2. Karen Buley

    Thank you, Sean, for sharing your story. I loved reading how your mother let you take your book into your bedroom, and later, though she knew deep down what your true calling was, she didn’t discourage your dreams of becoming a break dancer. The love you shared is palpable~may sweet memories bring you comfort. I look forward to reading your book.

  3. Jennifer Chan

    Mr. Manning, you must miss your Mum. Thank you for sharing your memories with us even though it must have been painful to relive them all over again. My grandmother died from a stroke two years ago at the age of 93. She looked after me while my mother worked so it was like I had two mothers. I’ve been trying to write about her life – she was widowed at the end of WWII and had to work hard at several jobs to support and educate four children. Thank you for inspiring me to persevere with writing Grandma’s story.

  4. Wanda Lambeth

    I felt your grief and the release of that emotion through writing as I had a very similar experience when my mother passed away. I wrote her eulogy the same day she died with that indescribable "push" that this was something that just "had" to be done. I had missed her by 2 hours when she died suddenly from heart failure so writing what a unique woman she was helped me (and my Dad and siblings) deal with the shock and grief plus my feelings of guilt that I had not been fast enough to get there. My family asked me to read the eulogy I had written for her funeral, no edits, no second draft – just raw and real as it was. It still might be my best work yet. All the best Sean and keep the words coming.

  5. Sara Shalom

    Thank you for your words. I am very interested in the use of all forms of creativity to foster healing and hope, diving into the brokenness of the past (or present) and coming up for air on the other side. Blessings as you continue your own healing work.

  6. Laura M.

    The man who murdered my roommate just died in Leavenworth Prison. He killed Barbara 35 years ago when she and I were 19. We all met as summer employees in Yosemite. To this day I cannot tolerate the sight of the Ansel Adams’ famous black and white photos of Half-Dome, Yosemite Falls, and other park landmarks. As her roommate I was the one who identified her body in Awahnee Meadow. I developed agoraphobia and had panic attacks if I merely walked past a vacant lot. It was only my own pride and determination that kept me pushing forward to become a success in the world of software engineering. But, from a young age I wanted to be a writer and I’ve always believed that I would one day write a book about my experiences related to my friend’s murder in Yosemite. Thank you, Mr. Manning, for sharing your story and giving me the inspiration to finally start writing my story.

  7. jackie allison

    The loss of a parent is momentous. The loss of a parent who is also a mentor, as your mother seemed to be, is devastating. My sicere sympathy.We, as writers, have the ability to heal through our words. It’s not an easy task. Many attempts are made with as many failures. Success is a matter of not giving up. Many times I’ve began to write about the medical hurdles my daughter has faced and tossed the efforts in the can. Knowing the good out come is no help. She is now a college sophomore on the deans list. The demons inside me, suppressed to raise this child to become the beautiful person she is, still haunt me. They need paper to put them to rest. I keep trying. Thank you.

  8. Roy Greene

    Sean, thank you for sharing your story. While I was moved of course by your loss, I was moved perhaps more by your great fortune. A fortune I happen to share. As a writer myself, I know the blessing of having a mother who believes in you and your dream. Whenever I admit to being merely an ‘aspiring writer’ since I’ve yet to be published, my mother adamantly corrects me. "You’re a writer. You write, so you’re a writer." She gently nudges me back onto my desired path when all I can see around me are brambles and mire. Your mother appears to have been very much the same. She gave you an enduring gift: her heartfelt belief in you. And though her physical presence is gone, that legacy will forever be with you.

  9. Lynn

    I’m so sorry for the loss of your mother and I, too, am envious of your relationship with her. My mother was abusive in many ways but I am writing my memoir about surviving and recovering from the abuse. Hopefully I can help someone else who has suffered abuse.
    Looking forward to read your book.

  10. Carol Peterson

    Sean, I’m so sorry for your loss! Reading your post validated for me something I was told by a counselor who is also a writer. Within one year, I relocated my elderly mother twice, dealt with my ailing alcoholic brother and his sons who were bleeding her dry, dealt with her worsening dementia, brought her to live near me – 700 miles from her "home"; lost my job at the same time my husband was also out of work and experienced the death of my dear father-in-law. I’d just published my first novel, but there was no joy in it.
    Writing gives me life, but I have not been able to write any fiction, and promoting my book is a chore. My counselor told me that I needed to write about "the year from hell" in order to get back to the joy of fiction. You have inspired me to get on with my Healing Journal. Thanks.

  11. Nicole Cherrie

    Thanks for sharing – and of course she knew! I agree that writing can heal – sometimes the pocess is painful – but I am envious of your great relationship with your mom! I can’t wait to get ahold of that book! Congratulations!

  12. Kathy

    I lost both my parents within a year of each other. I feel like I’ve never been able to truly grieve my loss. Maybe writing is the way but that sounds so uncomfortable and painful…and just raw. I’m glad you could do it and look forward, maybe hesitantly, to reading your book.

  13. Jeanne Berry

    It was only in the wake of my own Mother’s passing, four months after my Dad’s back in 2006, that I woke up to my own passion for writing. Like you, I always knew I wanted to write, but my life took me down many side roads and hid my own truth from me until I was ready for it. Your story is very moving; I look forward to reading "Things That Needed Doing".

  14. Tom Bentley

    Sean, I called my mother yesterday, and she told me she’d started crying because she’d reached into the cupboard for a bowl, and it was the one that my father always ate his breakfast cereal in. He died on New Year’s Day—they’d been married more than 60 years. I wrote a post about him just hours after his death that covered some of the ground of his life and what he meant to me, and another post later about writing his obituary.

    There is a great deal of comfort to be had in trying to record your grief, attempt to record the measure of your parent’s time, and sift through the influences and the things that will live on. Difficult as that writing is, it has a weird, cathartic purity.

    Thanks for letting us in on your mom’s gift to you.

  15. Ann Best

    I thought I had already commented but I guess not. When I saw you on Twitter this morning, I came over to check. I love memoirs. To write one is healing. It’s even more exciting to get one published, as I’m discovering (at age 70). My memoir is in the last stages of editing with a small press. I think I love memoirs because each one is wholly original, and because you realize reading them that we’re all in this together.
    <i>Ann Best, Author</i>

  16. Kathy Alarie

    I’m in the process of writing my life story. I had a nervous breakdown last year and I’m writing to help myself through the recovery process. Also in hopes of helping someone.

    Kathy Alarie

  17. Ana Maria Seaton

    I have kept journals for years now, combinations of the written word and my drawings. Writing has always been a healing element in my life, as much as my art. I have held a thought in the back of my mind, since my father’s sudden passing in 1989, of writing a memoir though more for my own process than for publishing. Thank you for sharing your story and your book. I am currently working on a novel and have begun making notes about the memoir. As a mom, I know that I would be proud of what your doing so I know she must be. I bet if you sit in the stillness and just listen, you could hear her smiling. Congratulations on your book, inspiring, looking forward to reading it.

  18. Sherry B.

    Saturday, January 29, 2011, 1:38 p.m.
    Sean, I am in the process of writing my own memoir based on a series of life-altering events which occured in increments of every two months for an entire year. I thought it was the worst year of my life. I was wrong. It took another two years for me to begin "getting over" that year and moving on. I, too, wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Writing is, and always has been a catharsis for me. I wish you the best of luck with The Things That Need Doing. I’m sure your mother is smiling down upon you as we speak.

  19. Texanne

    You are so young to have suffered this already, and for that I’m sad. You had two strong, insightful women to help you find your path, and for this I’m happy. Good for you for writing about them and about your feelings. Not many can or will. Thanks for bringing up the idea of using writing to heal a broken heart. :)TX

  20. Kathy K

    Sean, your story is so relatable to me. I lived through a similar ordeal from later 2008 through early 2010 when my dad went through risky open heart surgery, tons of rehab and several setbacks following a massive heart attack. He’s finally back to living a semi-normal life. I’m sorry you lost your mother, but I’m glad you’re doing what she knew you were meant to do.

  21. Kathleen B

    You have motivated me to complete my memoirs, Sean (my son’s name). Writing them has been healing–and enlightening. Having lived in two post-communist countries and having had my husband suddenly pass away in one of them, I found myself stranded in a foreign city where I knew only two words in the people’s tongue: yes or no; and no one in the government sector spoke English. I was forced to reach down inside myself and find strengths and resources I didn’t know I had. Putting everything I experienced on paper each night gave me courage and the will to rise above. Now I continue writing my memoirs as I carry on with the healing process. Thanks for contributing…thanks for writing.

  22. alina

    This is truly inspirational…beautiful… touching. I lost my mom to cancer at 22 years old, so I can definitely relate in many many ways. Even though she is not here in person to share it with you, I am sure you are embedded in her dear soul and she sees each word as you put it down on paper. You were so lucky (as was I) to have such a great mom and great memories with her for 27 years, whereas some people never get to have one moment of that. I am a teacher, and I hope I can be a Mrs. Koltnow to my students one day. I would really love to read this book.

  23. Kristan

    Ditto what Rick said. Geez. You really are a writer — I can see that in the way the story is written, as well as its concent. I’m sorry for your loss, but I’m sure she would be happy beyond measure that she helped you achieve your dream, even to the very end.

  24. Kristin Laughtin

    I always had a powerful imagination and had a similar experience in grade school that made me love writing. The first story I could remember was about an underwater detective, and I don’t remember much except that the culprit was a sea anemone, and my teacher graded me down because she didn’t know what that was. I wrote on and off as different fields drew my interest, and in high school realized the real power of words after reading Kurt Vonnegut. There are still many things I want to do, but I’ll want to write about all of them.

    I’m sorry for your loss, but glad that you were able to begin pursuing your dream again and that it helped you heal.

  25. Michael Di Gesu

    Thanks for sharing you story with us, Sean. I agree writing can heal. We all have hardships in life and wring is a wonderful outlet to share our pain, joy, excitement, and parts of who we are. Well done. Good luck with your book.


  26. Ang

    I had a "Mrs. Koltnow" in my life, as well. She was my 6th grade English teacher, and she was the first person who told me that I was a good writer. When she asked to keep some of my assignments as examples for her future classes, you would have thought that they were being put on exhibit at the Smithsonian — I was so excited! Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

  27. j

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope it was healing. I put my life and career on hold to return to my hometown when my father was ill, and I understand that ways it can change your outlook on life. I appreciate that you shared the many facets of your story. Congratulations on the positive reviews as well!

  28. shelley

    Wow! I was so moved by your story. I write YA, but have often thought that I may have a compelling memoir in me. My best to you (and your mother) in your future writings.

  29. Sarah Allen

    This is a beautiful post. I appreciate the honesty, and mix of poignancy and enthusiasm. I feel like that a lot in my writing career, wanting to write about honest, hard things, but having a zest for life at the same time. I sense that here. And I agree that writing about loss and any other struggles and trials that we come across really does help us sort through it, I guess. Thanks for this!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)


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