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Writing through trauma

The writer Isak Dinesen said, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.”

IMG_2935Last January, an article by Patrick O’Malley caught my eye in The New York Times. O’Malley is a psychotherapist in Texas, and his column was about the grief of losing someone you love deeply. He was writing about a client who had lost a baby – O’Malley had lost a child earlier in his life as well – but the overarching topic of the piece was about getting grief right. Not only did O’Malley make the reasonable assertion that a person’s style of grieving is as unique as his or her fingerprint, but he spoke about the value of bereavement groups where grieving hearts can share their stories.

O’Malley quotes the writer Isak Dinesen: “All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.”

“When loss is a story,” he adds, “there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no pressure to move on. There is no shame in intensity or duration. Sadness, regret, confusion, yearning and all the experiences of grief become part of the narrative of love for the one who died.”

Not long after reading O’Malley’s column, I read H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s tender and intelligent story of her father’s death and her path through grief by way of a goshawk she raised. You can read more about Macdonald (and her goshawk Mabel) in our lead feature, but it’s worth noting: She took the journey only she could take to come to terms with loss.

I know that journey well; many of us have been on it, and many of us have shared it with a pet. I related particularly to Macdonald’s story because my daughter’s beloved rescue pit bull T Rex accompanied not only my daughter but also me across some rough waters of loss. When Rex, a breed considered as deadly as the goshawk’s, came into my daughter’s life, I was against him and afraid of him. But Rex did something rare and humbling: He changed me. I went from loathing to loving. How often does that happen? In my experience, not very often.

As you read this issue, you’ll see stories that resonate with those who have experienced loss or trauma. And because this is our conference issue, you will also see stories about the value of community. We hope you find something here that bolsters your writing and your sense of belonging.

As with Mabel, our Rex passed away. They both left behind powerful stories and changed lives – possibly because their storytellers were open to hearing, to recording. Through such stories – about goshawks and pit pulls, about loss, fear and loneliness – we create community. At its best, that’s what all writing, and perhaps all art, does.

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Alicia Anstead


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