Writing Grief: A Writing Workshop within a Hospice Bereavement Program, by Vicki C. Mayk

Hospice House of St. Luke’s Hospice in Bethlehem, Pa., sits tucked away at the bend of a road. A floor-to-ceiling mosaic greets visitors in its welcoming entryway. To the right, a kitchen stocked with snacks and comfort food is ready for family members who need a break from their bedside vigils. A library with cozy chairs offers a spot for quiet reflection and meditation.

The atmosphere is so homey that it’s easy to forget that Hospice House is a final stop for people at the end of their lives – a place where people draw their last breaths and where families say hard good-byes.  My career gave me the privilege of working with St. Luke’s Hospice for five years, as a community relations and communications manager. Among the many things I learned is that hospice supports both the family and the patient. I also learned that celebrating the life that is ending is truly part of the hospice experience. Both were lessons that I took with me when I went on to my next job.

In 2012, I returned to Hospice House after an eight-year hiatus in quite a different role—one that had grown out of those earlier lessons. In completing a master’s degree in creative writing, I was required to do a teaching internship. Instead of teaching an adult education workshop or community college class, I chose to create and teach a workshop that employed memoir writing to help the bereaved to process their grief.  The workshop I designed, “Writing Grief,” was a first at St. Luke’s Hospice. It was well received and subsequently has been offered annually as part of the bereavement program.

Using writing to process grief isn’t new. Grief and loss have long been the impetus for writing memoir and personal essays. Writers as diverse as C.S. Lewis, Joan Didion and Cheryl Strayed have used grief and loss to inspire and inform their writing.  In his work, A Grief Observed, a collection of reflections written after the loss of his beloved wife, Joy, Lewis wrote of the experience of grief. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid; the same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me….”

From a more clinical perspective, social psychologist James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin, has pioneered the concept of writing therapy, establishing a link between using language and recovery from trauma.  Pennebaker has written extensively about the fact that writing about difficult experiences leads to significant physical and mental health improvements. Despite this work, the idea that writing could be used as a formal way of dealing with grief for non-writers has not been fully explored in many hospice bereavement programs. Using writing in this unique setting challenged me to develop new approaches.

In developing my workshop, I sought a way that would allow any person – not just those who define themselves as writers—to use the written word to explore and process grief. The more philosophical kind of writing, like the kind exemplified by C.S. Lewis, would be daunting to many trying simply to set thoughts down on paper with no thoughts of publication.  I took my inspiration in developing the workshop from my former colleague in the St. Luke’s Hospice program, the Rev. Anne Huey, who is spiritual services manager for the program. On more than one occasion, I’d heard Rev. Huey tell the bereaved, “Our job when we mourn someone is to remember them so fully and so completely that they are not really lost to us.”

Reading Cheryl Strayed’s popular memoir Wild, which deals in part with the loss of her mother, I recognized the truth of Rev. Huey’s words. Strayed has written, “Through my work, my mom has been made alive to so many people. In some strange way through art, I brought my mom back” (Strayed).

Indeed, Jeffrey Berman, professor of English at SUNY at Albany, writes in his book Companionship In Grief that all memoirists writing about loss experience a dual benefit. Berman explores famous memoirs dealing with spousal loss, such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and poet Donald Hall’s The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon. Berman writes, “I was not surprised to discover that nearly all the memoirists affirmed the power of writing not only to memorialize loss but also to work through their own grief. With the possible exception of Joan Didion, all the writers in my study would agree with John Bayley’s observation in Widower’s House: ‘Writing about the dead is a way not only of continuing to feel in touch with them, but of expiating guilt’ – the guilt being, I presume, survivor guilt (Berman).

Workshop Structure and Exercises

In “storying” the life of the person lost, the writer recalls the individual who died and his relationship with him. I structured my six-week workshop to provide the bereaved with the tools to begin the storying process. It was equally important to create a safe place for the writers to explore their grief. For that reason, the workshop followed the same rules for participation that are used in the hospice bereavement program’s other workshops and support groups. Participants are required to be courteous and respectful to other group members. Everything shared in a group remains confidential and is not discussed outside of the group. It should be noted that a social worker from the bereavement program sits in on the writing workshop to provide additional support.

Sharing and participating is encouraged at meetings – but is not required.  That last item caused me some concern in the context of a writing workshop: sharing of the week’s assignment needed to remain voluntary given the sensitivity of the bereavement process. However, it turned out that most workshop participants shared their work more than once. For the few who were not prepared to share, or who felt a particular week’s assignment was too emotionally difficult, I offered to meet one on one with the writer to discuss.  A number chose that option.

The first week is spent discussing the difference between memoir, biography and autobiography. Memoir – which allows the writer to focus on a particular time period or theme – is presented as a more personal way of writing about the loved one who was lost. More importantly, because the memoir form encourages the writer to reflect on the meaning of relationships, incidents and experiences, it provides opportunities for processing grief that might not be available in writing a life story following a chronological format often used in biography or autobiography.  Some participants joined the workshop with the idea of creating a chronicle of stories to pass down to other family members. Again, memoir is a good format for such a goal.

I chose memoir as the form to be explored in my workshop for another reason. Writing in her book Braving The Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss, author Jessica Handler states, “Almost all memoirs are ultimately about identity: who we once were and who we have become.” One of the essential things that a person learns as they grieve is that life will not return to what it was before the loss – whether the loss was a job, a marriage or a person. The bereaved often long for life to “get back to normal.” But loss changes our lives and creates a new normal. Memoir writing that explores loss ultimately is writing about the journey from life before to life after. My goal in the workshop is to help participants explore that transition. During the three years of offering this workshop, I’ve had many people tell me that the writing their stories about a past life and past relationship has made them feel ready to move on to the new normal

Beginning the writing process can be daunting. Quoting an essay about writing memoir by the late writing guru William Zinsser, I encourage writers in the workshop to “be yourself, speak freely, and think small.” (Zinsser) Exercises reflected this advice, with each one providing a focus that was manageable for those not comfortable with the writing process. For those who had difficult or uncomfortable emotions to deal with in writing about loss, the advice to “speak freely” served to give permission to write about both positive and negative memories and experiences.

Assignments provide specific direction but also are flexible enough to allow each writer to choose to explore memories of specific events, contemplate their loss, or recall the lost individual in detail. The first exercise, “writing about a person,” urges participants to create a portrait of their lost loved one using multi-sensory details. An exercise in the workshop helped them to think beyond surface physical traits such as hair and eye color and to tap other things that were defining characteristics of an individual. Index cards with prompts such as “birth order,” “military veteran,” “immigrant,” “religion” and more are randomly dealt to workshop participants.  At three- to five-minute intervals, cards are passed to the right. With each new card, the writers are challenged to consider whether these details are important in describing the person they have lost.  Was the person’s religion central to their definition of self? Did being the oldest or middle child continue to be part of their identity in adulthood? How did a person’s military service impact them? Answering these questions helped writers to develop a multi-faceted portrait of another person.

Subsequent exercises focused on describing a place or describing an object associated with the deceased. The rationale for the assignment about place is to allow members of the group to recall memories of a place they associated with their loved one or to reflect on how a place changes after the loss of someone who lived or worked there. One workshop participant described in vivid detail a lush garden created by her husband, remembering it as it was when she walked there with him. By the end of the essay, she described returning to the garden without him after his death, contrasting the experience before and after her loss. An electrician participating in the workshop after the loss of his wife recreated the spot beside the river where he had proposed to her.

The exercise in describing an object allows writers to capture a memory of possessions intimately associated with their friend or family member. However, nothing could have prepared me for the essay written by my student Jean about her late husband’s bedroom slippers.  Jean humorously wrote about her husband’s nightly ritual of putting on his slippers and his penchant for misplacing them – and the grumbling that accompanied his search. The essay ended with Jean’s reflection that the slippers were the one item of clothing she’d been unable to give away after his death – an item so beloved that she sometimes slept with them. After sharing the essay with the group, Jean reached into her bag and set the slippers on the table. Such moments in the workshop are unforgettable.

Moving on from these exercises, writers begin to work on structuring longer pieces that reflect the grief experience. They are urged to begin to look at seemingly disparate or unrelated memories and see how, when woven together, they convey a particular aspect of their grief experience. With that direction, an assignment to write a piece using separate memories that had a distinct progression from beginning to middle to end yielded surprising and moving results. Jeff’s essay began with his memory of the first time he saw his wife. As a teenager working in a grocery store, he was tasked with sweeping the floor. Working his way up and down the aisles with a push broom, he turned a corner to find a pretty young woman in his path. From that early memory, his essay progressed to the memory of the day he ordered her taken off of life support. His very literal interpretation of beginning and end yielded a powerful and moving piece of writing.

What I’ve learned as a facilitator is that I’m there to create a safe place where the grieving can tell their stories: stories of their life with the person they lost, stories of their grief, and stories of life after loss. Writing these stories down allows someone who is grieving to more thoroughly process important memories and moments. Because we don’t require anyone to share what they have written, participants feel free to express what they are feeling.

By creating a safe place, participants are able to write about things that are extremely important and personal. By the end of the six-week workshop, they are sharing stories of the most profound and intimate kind, revealing truths they may never have shared with others. For example, John, who cared for his wife through her death from Alzheimer’s disease, eventually shared that he had been a Catholic priest when he met his wife and she had been a nun. They had left their religious orders to marry. To share this unspoken and important truth through the process of writing was a freeing and affirming act for John in his grief journey.

Many participants have shared their deepest feelings about their losses for the first time. This was especially true for men writing about spouses and significant others. As a culture, many men do not often share their deepest feelings of love in a public way. In our group, men shared profound moments of connection with their late wives – reliving the first time they met or they day they proposed.  Conversely, I’ve seen women reflect on their changed role now that they are no longer wife or mother.

The common experience for all of the writers in the workshop is that they feel better – emotionally and in some cases physically – after writing about their loss for six weeks.

What Writing Grief Accomplishes

Just as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous “Five Stages of Grief” is not a cookie cutter description of the grieving process for every person, no writing workshop is a one-size-fits-all method for writing about loss. As the workshop leader, I’ve come to recognize that I’m there to help people use the act of writing to make sense of this most difficult time of their lives. While the goal in most writing workshops is to develop skill and refine writing, the primary goal in the grief writing workshop is to aid the grieving process by providing a tool for examining and reflecting on the experience.  Author Jessica Handler writes, “Loss transforms the stories that we expected of our lives.”  My job is to help participants honor and chronicle the old stories while finding the words to begin telling the new ones.

It’s long been acknowledged by psychologists and social workers that human beings are hard-wired to use stories to interpret events and make sense of life. The grief writing workshop reflects this. By constructing a narrative about loss and the people we’ve lost, growth, understanding and healing is possible.

Works Cited

Berman, Jeffrey. Companionship in Grief: Love and Loss in the Memoirs  of C.S.
      Lewis, John Bayley, Donald Hall, Joan Didion and Calvin  Trillin. University of
Massachusetts Press, 2010.

Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Alfred Knopf,  2005.

Hall, Donald. The Best Day The Worst Day: Life With Jane Kenyon.
      Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Handler, Jessica. Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and
      Loss. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013.

Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994.

Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan,

Pennebaker, James W. “Writing about Emotional Experiences as a
Therapeutic Process.” Psychological Science. American Psychological
Society. Vol. 8, No. 3, May 1997

Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
New York: Vintage Books, 2013.

Zinsser, William. “How to Write a Memoir: Be Yourself, speak freely and
think small.” Theamericanscholar.org: spring 2006.

Vicki Mayk is a memoirist, nonfiction writer and magazine editor whose work has appeared in print and online publications including Ms Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, the The New York Times, the Manifest-Station, Literary Mama and East Meets West Writers Journal. She has enjoyed a 40-year career in journalism and public relations and has edited university magazines, most recently for Wilkes University. She created and teaches a memoir workshop for the bereavement program at St. Luke’s Hospice in Bethlehem, Pa. She also teaches nonfiction workshops and a freshman seminar about the power of story at Wilkes, where she earned her MFA in the graduate creative writing program. Learn more about her work at www.vickimayk.com

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