Writing Through Grief & Family Trauma
Note: This post contains discussion of abuse and infant loss, as well as language that may be triggering for trauma survivors.
In my office closet, there is a box full of more than a dozen notebooks. I started keeping a prayer journal in 2010, and while I can’t say I’ve always been as consistent with it as I’d like, the series of notebooks captures the majority of my life over the last eleven years. It’s seen my marriage, job changes, creative discoveries, and literary achievements.
It’s also seen mental health difficulties, a painful split with a church, deep spiritual battles, doubt, and things I could never speak out loud to anyone except God. It gets dark sometimes, and when it does, the only way I can know what I’m dealing with is to write it down. But recently, I realized something important about my prayer journals and their eleven-year chronicle of my life.
The writing project I spend the most time on is the one that nobody will ever see.
As creative people, I think we get caught up in the drive to “produce.” We need work to send to literary journals, a book manuscript to show to an agent, a novel that will be publishable. We rush to get work done so that people can read it, because if we aren’t producing, we aren’t achieving anything. And that’s a lie. I know that in a lot of my content, I talk about the importance of understanding your reader so what you produce can truly be a gift that inspires and impacts them. And that is important. In fact, if you aspire to publish work of any kind, it’s essential. However…not everything you write has to be for an audience. Sometimes, we write just for ourselves, to give our pain a place to go and keep the darkness from clouding in too much. Over the last month, we’ve been talking a lot about writing about family as your subject matter. But sometimes, writing about your family hurts.
Words like “mother” and “father” are knives to the heart. Thoughts about family evoke vivid memories you wish you could forget. You think about the loss of a parent, grandparent, or child, and feel overwhelmed with sadness. Even sounds, smells, and colors are tainted. My dad, a child abuse survivor, still panics at the sound of tires on gravel. However…if you are comfortable with writing down your experiences, even if no one else sees it, you deserve the space to do that.
That’s why I want to devote this week’s post to writing about traumatic family events and discovering the healing that comes from the act of writing, regardless of who may or may not read it. To help me give the most accurate portrayal of this topic as possible, I enlisted the help of some writer friends who practice writing as a way to combat the effects of trauma.
From the experiences and writing processes of these respondents, I’ve drawn some important tips to keep in mind as you move from carrying difficult family experiences from your memory to pencil and paper.
Private Writing Brings Freedom
One of the most powerful things you can do as a writer is claim your writing space as territory for just yourself.
The most important writing you’ll ever do is not the book you’ll sell on Amazon or the poem you’ll get published in a literary journal. It’s the writing that heals deep-seated wounds and lets you truly express how they have shaped you. Almost all the authors I spoke with stated that writing about their experiences helped them process the grief, loss, and anxiety that come with complex family relationships. One writer stated that the most important thing to do is “just start writing.” There is no pressure, no audience, no need to get it right. All you need to do is start somewhere. Anywhere. On last week’s 10 Minute Writing Time, my Instagram livestream, I gave viewers a writing prompt to write a short piece about an object that you associate with a family member—an article of clothing, an accessory, a tool. Beginning with something as simple as an object can give you a starting point that other ideas can flow from. Writing something that is just for you is an empowering act that lets you use your gifts for language as medicine for your soul.
Keep Your Motives In Check
In their responses, several authors mentioned the importance of motivation in writing about family.
One writer said that any desire to write out of revenge or anger needs to be examined carefully before the writing process begins. This is because manifesting destructive emotions in your work can end up doing more harm than good. One author, Ashley, presented a writing exercise that can help authors determine whether their motivations are healthy. “I always start with a word sorting activity,” Ashley explained. “I break down my thoughts into three categories: words to describe how I feel as I remember, words to describe the physical experience, words to describe how I psychologically perceived the experience at the time. I write as many words as I can to fill the columns. This sets the tone for whether the piece is going to be an empowering or traumatic recall.”
She also discussed how to fight back against feelings of guilt that some authors experience when writing about difficult family experiences.
“Every time I write something about my life that was such a secret from others at the time, it feels wrong,” she said. “But it has been a necessity in order to heal. I want to get to the place where I convert shame into strength, and maybe one day let others into my headspace so they can understand also.”
If You're Ready, Examine How Your Writing Can Help Others
Although many authors talked about the importance of processing trauma by writing privately, a few have developed blogs or other public arenas to help readers who are dealing with the same issues. For two authors, private writing about the loss of children eventually gave way to developing blogs to educate the public about this issue, provide resources, and create an open space for parents in need. One of them, Sarah Warner, is the founder of Stillbirth Friend, a website that provides ideas, information, and support for friends of parents who have lost children to stillbirth.
Sarah’s son, Charlie, died as a full-term stillbirth, and for her, writing has always been a vital part of processing grief and loss. Sarah stated that while she initially wrote about Charlie for her own emotional support, she soon realized that her writing had the potential to not just help parents, but educate their friends, who may not know how to provide sensitive and loving support. “At first it was largely selfish: to process what I was experiencing,” Sarah said. “But it has morphed into more of an effort to present my experiences and perspectives to help other people be more understanding and supportive of grief, particularly as it relates to the loss of a baby.”
Your Experiences May Morph into Fiction
Just as Sarah’s personal writing about stillbirth eventually made its way into a public blog, some authors found their private work about family experiences weaving into fiction. Several authors said that they can see the influence of past family trauma in the way they create social dynamics between characters.
One person even mentioned that writing about family in a fictional setting has helped them to process the events from a distance, providing a panoramic view of the experience that has helped them see the perspectives of other people involved.
A Final and Crucial Note
Writing about family trauma is a delicate area that needs to be entered with caution and insight, and while Inkling Creative Strategies is a great place to go for writing resources, we are not a professional recovery resource. There are many resources out there to help you on this often-complex journey. As a trauma survivor as well as a writer, I strongly recommend seeking counseling or other professional support. However, if you feel like you want to begin writing about your experiences, but aren’t sure what to do next, my Ultimate Writing Project Workbook is a great place to start. It contains writing prompts, worksheets, and templates to help you not just develop your ideas, but get a starting point for using writing to process your experiences. Click here to get one for free.