photo of a painted stone with the following written in blue letters "for those who've loved and loss" to illustrate the power of writing about grief.

The #1 Way to Write About Grief

I had a snot-bubble-cry dance party on the morning of my big panel presentation at AWP. 

The event was scheduled on the twenty-seven-year anniversary of my brother’s suicide, and while it’s a day that always includes a few tears, some years hit harder than others. 

I didn’t expect this to be one of the tough ones, but it hit me hard. 

This was not only inconvenient given that I was on a panel that day at a conference with over ten thousand people, but by the time I’d had this realization, I’d already put makeup on. Plus, the feelings were buzzing against the rules I’d unconsciously established about how one should feel at work, and especially while working on the road. 

But grief has a mind of its own, and I’m seasoned enough to know that resisting it is futile. 

So, I created a playlist, opened my hotel blinds, and danced to the tunes my brother and I loved while tears streamed down my face. I danced until I’d wrung the grief from my bones. 

Then I fixed my makeup and headed for the convention center. 

Two days later, I attended a session titled “Grief: What is it good for?” with Ross Gay, Thomas Mira Y LopezThirii Myo Kyaw MyintMaddie Norris, and Kathryn Savage. They spoke of grief related to pregnancy loss, illness, and broken relationships. 

Ross read his poem “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street.” 

According to Ross, “mourning is never separate from celebration, connection, and love.” 

Kathryn likes to explore its relationship with time and memory while Thomas saw it as an opportunity to engage in recreating. Thirii framed it as a revolutionary act that empowers the writer. Ross followed up by talking about how grief “dissolves boundaries between us that alert us to our entanglement and make us willing to care for one another.”

Each excerpt the panelists read focused not so much on feelings or the sorrow itself, but a distillation of a moment that could serve as a fresh metaphor or commentary on the role grief plays in our lives, communities, and the world. 

Surprisingly, every writer talked about the lightness they found in the writing process, and how life affirming it was, while also acknowledging the pain they experienced. 

It’s through zooming in on the small moments, looking for the unsaid, unspoken, or unseen element, and then magnifying what they found that they discovered the lightness and the connection to all humanity. This is a skill we can all use, no matter the topic or genre. 

As I gyrated in my hotel-room, heat from the rising sun radiated through the window and into me as I was transported back to the days when my brother and I rocked out together. I left tired yet cleansed and ready for the day ahead.

I knew I’d share my grief with friends at the conference, but a bump of intuition nudged me to share it during our presentation. 

As our panel ended, a woman told me that she was commemorating an anniversary too. She’d gotten up and rushed to the nine o’clock panels believing that was what she was supposed to do. But hearing my story inspired her to hold a similar ritual that night.

I also met someone at another panel, who was trying to understand what had happened to her father who had also died by suicide. I came up to her afterward and introduced myself as a fellow survivor. 

We embraced like the bikers in Ross’s poem. Boundaries dissolved. We cared for one another’s stories, and as we did, we smiled at the joy of being known. 

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