When my 25-year-old son died in a snowboarding accident on December 27, 2000, I was writing about raising my two kids, being a poet and teaching, and how each of these three vocations informed the others.
Now my beautiful son, who was to marry his fiancé Kristen in five months, was dead. Hundreds of miles from where it had happened, I obsessed about how there must have been something I could have done to stop this accident. Like so many who have suffered loss, I lived with a barrage of what-if-I-had-only-done-this-or-that’s, no matter whether I could have taken those actions that day or the day before or even years before his accident. Since I had failed as a parent, I didn’t deserve to write. Writing was a discovering, a becoming. I didn’t want to discover or become anything, only to have my son back.
In the weeks after his funeral, I rose early to see the sunrise. I stood at my window to watch it set. The sun’s rays penetrated my whole being. I felt at one with something larger, something I craved feeling at one with, as it held a sorrow too big for me to hold alone. Between dawn and dusk, I sat at home reading narratives by parents whose children had died. I read; I read and I read. I cried with them, for them and, of course, for myself.
When I was with people, I began speaking so softly that my friends, the men and women behind the deli counter, my husband, everyone asked me to repeat myself. One day, I opened Edward Hirsch’s book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry to a poem entitled “The Voice of Robert Desnos,” by Robert Desnos in which he bemoans an unrequited love to whom he calls over much geography and an expanse of time. I would call, I thought, to the accident that took my boy, whom I would not see marry or have children or grow in his career as an architect. I would cry out to do what I couldn’t do in life—stop the accident from happening:
Having given voice to my sense of powerlessness in this poem, I was audible again. I could speak so others could hear me. I turned to another of the poems in Hirsch’s book, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” a villanelle about loss. Edward Hirsch writes that a villanelle is a form that retrieves loss. And since I was interested in little else but my loss, I sat at my desk with Bishop’s poem on my left as I followed the form’s pattern. I began with a phrase I’d come across reading a book about modern religious theology and the monotheistic God “who has no body and no likeness of a body.” I had another phrase in mind, too: “who is in my dreams, the dreams that bring me gardens.” This one came from a dream in which my son returned to tell me, at a garden party, that he was fine.
The poem seemed to me not only to circle around the fact of loss, but also to make real the peace I’d felt in my dream seeing my son in a favorite shirt. After several months, I returned to my writers’ group.
Each month, I brought in words that sprang from loss. I needed to acquire the knowledge necessary for living with grief, my new companion. Though I had thought I would stop writing, I now believed I was writing to be able to be whole again for my daughter, my mother, my husband, my future grandsons and my father who was ill with Parkinson’s.
Four years after my boy died, the development director at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, to which we’d asked friends to contribute in honor of Seth, asked to interview me to learn about this young man in whose name a summer camp scholarship had been set up to teach children about our Pacific Northwest waters. She ran a beautiful article in the Center’s newsletter about Seth. Now, I realized I had a purpose in publishing a memoir built from the poems I had written—to earn royalties I could donate to the Seth Bender Memorial Camp Scholarship Fund.
I continued writing, and when I felt I had a decent version of a memoir, I showed it to my husband, who is a fine reader of my work-in-progress. Of course, though, after so many years, I thought this book was nearly finished and he would tell me that.
“Where is everyone?” he exclaimed after he read the manuscript. “We were all there. Kristen’s whole family, Seth’s dad, sister and new brother-in-law. Me. Why aren’t we in the book? It was a loss we all suffered, not just you. Spending as much time as possible together was important to us all. We needed to share our stories of Seth.”
In order to understand my spiritual search, I had had to write my story, my quest to find a way to live with a greater understanding of mortality. But to learn even more, I had to include the others who were with me, and with Seth, during his dying and his living.
As I delved further into the rewrite, I remembered more about our time gathered around Seth’s deathbed in a Denver area hospital, about taking him off life support and the hours and days after that. It took me seven years to successfully knit the people and the poems into a prose memoir. Over the years while I was writing, my grandson was born, Seth’s fiancé Kristen set a wedding date, and her father asked me to write a poem for her as she prepared for marriage. My husband and I made yearly visits each December 27 to the Port Townsend Marine Science Center to watch the sunrise, and each year something special seemed to happen in the environment surrounding us at sunrise. Those events found their way into the book and into my quest for healing.
When Imago Press, a small independent publisher in Tucson, AZ expressed interest in my book, production began. The publisher suggested the book title be A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief. I knew she was right—this was exactly what I had done to write the story and come to insight and discovery.
When the book became a reality and readers told me they felt like they really got to know my son Seth, I was actually surprised— I didn’t fully realize until I heard from readers that for me to go on living, I had brought Seth, if not back to life, to live in the minds and hearts of many others. The magic of memoir was for me the vehicle to resurrect my life after loss, to resurrect my son’s life and to learn how deeply alive he was during his 25 years and how deeply his spirit lives in me. Brenda Miller, editor of The Bellingham Review, who published the villanelle “A New Theology” shortly after I wrote it, told me recently that a woman at one of her workshops had recited the entire poem to her group having memorized it because it helped her in grieving. I have learned first-hand how necessary it is to share our stories of loss and of grieving. I owe much to those parents whose stories I was reading in the months after Seth died. Each story meant that the dead are not lost to us.
Shortly after my book was published, I read from it at a bookstore in Seattle. My then seven-year-old grandson Toby (who was conceived not too long after his uncle died because my daughter wanted to give our family good news) attended. When I told the audience we would begin a Q&A, he grabbed his dad’s hand so he could be the first in line at the register to buy a copy (even though I’d given a copy to my daughter, of course). At dinner a few weeks later as the adults discussed healthcare reform, Toby turned to me, “It’s a good book, Grandma.” I cry as I type this. My grandson will know his uncle. He will know he can live fully even after the loss of someone he loves (and I will be among them some day) if he keeps that loved one’s spirit alive in this world.
And I knew in that moment, at that dinner with my mother, my daughter and my grandson, the power of writing and sharing writing for resurrecting lives and maintaining love, for connecting us to what is larger than just ourselves.
I knew without one doubt the importance of never giving up writing.
Sheila Bender is the founder of Writing It Real, an online community and resource center for those who write from personal experience. Her most recent books are the poetry collection, Behind Us The Way Grows Wider, a prose memoir, A New Theology Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, Sorrow's Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief, Writing in a Convertible With the Top Down and the ebook Write ! Write! Write! 7 Dynamite Exercises for Writing Prose From Personal Experience. Sheila received a Master's in Creative Writing from the University of Washington and since then has committed much of her career to facilitating others in writing poetry, memoir, personal essay and flash nonfiction. She teaches online from her website and for Women on Writing and Story Circle Network. She has participated on the faculties of the Mendocino Writer's Conference, The Writer's Workshoppe in Port Townsend, WA and Centrum's summer Port Townsend Writers' Workshop. She keeps an up-to-date teaching schedule at WritingItReal.com.
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