Staying Positive While Writing About Death and Tragedy

Here are 10 tips to keep your spirits up when writing about deeply emotional content.
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Experiencing significant tragedy and loss (my seventeen-year-old brother’s death; my son’s degenerative disease and subsequent death; my daughter’s autism diagnosis; my divorce; and nine days later, a flu that progressed into transverse myelitis leaving me paralyzed from the waste down) has fostered an unexpected, but prolific writing career. Through writing my new memoir—Rethinking Possible: A Memoir of Resilience, June 2017—and other weekly columns, I’ve come to learn that articulating my thoughts about death, tragedy, or life-changing loss requires a unique approach. Here are ten tips to keep your spirits up when writing about deeply emotional content:

This guest post is by Rebecca Faye Smith Galli. Galli is a Baltimore, Maryland-based author of a new memoir, Rethinking Possible: A Memoir of Resilience (She Writes Press, June 2017), as well as a weekly columnist who writes about love, loss, and healing. In 2000, The Baltimore Sun published her first column about playing soccer with her son—from the wheelchair. With over 400 published columns, she writes, “Thoughtful Thursdays ― Lessons from a Resilient Heart,” a weekly column for her subscriber family that shares what’s inspired her to stay positive.

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1. Remember your purpose.

Why are you writing about an experience that is sure to bring you sadness? Take some time to determine your motivation. Write. It. Down. Make a list and keep it handy. There will be times you need to remind yourself why you are putting yourself through the pain. Remembering the purpose of your writing can be an inspiring force. For eample, here’s my list of reasons I chose to write my memoir:

  • To honor my brother who died at age seventeen
  • To tell my story of love, loss, and healing, my way, for my children
  • To share what I learned along the way about accepting and dealing with life-changing loss in hopes to connect and help others who may have experienced the same thing

2. Prepare to welcome a returning companion.

As I say in my book, “Grief is a strange companion.” In writing about any life-changing loss, you will poke grief hard and bring it back to life. Prepare to adjust to its constant presence. Remember though, we grieve for what matters to us. Whether untimely death, divorce, or disability, when we probe our losses, insight awaits. Look forward to what you will learn from the process.

3. Lighten up.

Do you have flexibility in your timeline? Clarify your options. As you move through the writing process, you may find there are times it may be too difficult to continue. You may need to take a break. After my father’s death, I felt an urgency to keep writing my book but could not find the words. The pressure, although self-imposed, began to affect my outlook and my family life. A writer friend suggested that I “let it rest.” So, when well-meaning friends would ask me, “How’s the book coming along?” I began answering, “It’s resting.” It was an honest answer that gave me permission to regroup, relax a bit, and lighten up.

4. Reward yourself.

Know what lifts your spirits and keep that arsenal ready for use. Music, coffee, scented candles, flowers, working out, inspirational books, time with pets, nature, or even decluttering a corner may refresh you. Take time to celebrate a word count or a page count or a chapter completion.

5. Keep a calendar.

Some writers work best with a daily writing schedule. Others prefer to “binge write” for days. When I am writing about deep loss in the early stages, I binge write. I block off two to three days on my calendar and hunker down. I prepare meals ahead, stock up on my favorite snacks (including dark chocolate and peanut butter) and make sure a friend is available for a Starbuck’s run if I need a power-boost. When I am editing, however, I do best with scheduled morning writing times. Having a writing plan will minimize distractions and help you stay on task, always a positive feeling.

6. Pick a partner.

Writing about loss can pull you into lonely places. Find a friend or family member to become your anchor person as your write through the loss. Share your writing plan with them. Tell them what you are writing about in the morning and ask them to check in with you at the end of the day. That check-in, however brief, will remind you that you are not alone in the process.

7. Set the stage, and then close the curtain.

Find "artifacts" that can pull you back into the loss experience. Photos, mementos, special letters, or keepsakes can propel you back in time quickly, efficiently. Keep those in your writing area as you write about the experience, but make sure to tuck them away when you are finished with that section. They are props, not ever-present reminders. Keep history in its place, freeing up your mental space.

8. Avoid over-sharing. It can slow you down.

Don't talk about the details of what you are writing when your memories are still tender. Save the emotion you feel and make sure it lands on the page and not in someone else's ear. It is often hard to re-create the energy or recall the exact phrasing after you have talked about an experience. Capturing those angry, sad, awkward, conflicted, or confused feelings on the page first will help keep your pace consistent.

9. Keep moving, despite memory lapses.

If you can’t remember important details, be honest and acknowledge it. Instead of getting frustrated, state the reality. Stanford instructor Faith Adiele suggests this exercise. Begin with, “I remember this. . .” and then move to, “I don't remember that. . .” Those honest assessments can be a place holder for more memories, or, if used as is, can become a powerful way to put the reader in your moment. Everyone understands that memory fails us, especially during fresh grief. That emotional fog that settles in often cloaks the details of what we are experiencing. Recall what you can (and can’t) and keep moving. Progress will help keep your spirits up.

10. Be patient with yourself.

As I say in the book, “Grief is as unique as your fingerprint.So, too, will be your writing process and progress. Avoid comparing yourself with other writers. Choose your own milestones. You alone know the difficulty of the subject matter. You are choosing to revisit a painful experience, write about it, and learn from it. Forget impressing others; impress yourself.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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