Death, Deadlines, and Writing about Grief

“White Lily” by weapher via Flickr

“White Lily” by weapher via Flickr

by Cait Johnson

Deadline. It’s not a warm and fuzzy word. In fact, it can remind us of the hospital monitor flatline that usually means the patient is, you know, dead.

Back when I was a starry-eyed new author, I believed deadlines were graven in something violently explosive that would shatter if I missed one, maiming me for life, and booting me into a circle of hell that included never being published again. But no, a seasoned editor friend told me with a wise smile, nobody makes their deadlines. Editors don’t even expect you to make your deadlines. (Note to students: Please forget you ever read the preceding.) It’s all an attempt, said my friend, to keep authors at least in the ballpark of being on track, which is, she went on, an awful lot like herding cats.

At the time, I was shocked rather than relieved to hear this, and I vowed that I would never, come hell, high water, or personal tragedy, never, never, never miss a deadline.

So much for my idealized self-image.

It turns out that I missed the deadline (thankfully a flexible one) for this blog, because even for writers, in the triage of life, death trumps deadlines.

Sure, we all know that everyone dies, although secretly most of us think death is for the neighbors. When faced with the death of someone they know, you may notice how people often keep silent because they are more concerned with not sounding stupid or trite than they are with comforting the bereaved. We may think that’s because they’re not writers. They don’t know, as we do, how to put the wordless into words. After all, that’s our job—making the messiness of emotions like grief, if not tidy, at least coherent. Until the dead person is someone you loved, and loved deeply. Then it can be hard to put three words together in a straight line because the mind is winging out in surreal loop-the-loops, or floating off into the endless dark spaces of sheer disbelief.

It can sometimes take a little time before the words can be organized like willing troops and made to march up and down the page at your command. For a few days or weeks, there can be a terrible silence, like the nothing you hear after a great blast has stunned your eardrums.

Of course there is a literature of grief; throughout history, people have stared into the abyss of permanent loss and tried to make sense of it, written about it with honesty and even grace. I think of Mark Doty, who chronicled his lover’s death from AIDS and who wrote about their home in Cape Cod, surrounded by the water they both loved, and feeling, he writes, as if they were standing on a kind of sandbar and watching as the edges crumble. When you think about it, we are all on a similar sandbar, whether we know it or not.

After the first paralysis has passed, it can be a comfort to put the vastness of death—or at least our reaction to it—into the container of words. It is, at least, something we can do. Because our struggle to express this profound mystery—one that that touches all of us sooner or later—is part of trying to make sense of this messy, difficult, beautiful human adventure. While many opt to turn on the TV and shirk the job entirely (and believe me, I’ve been watching more than my share of Downton Abbey), it seems to me that we are called to make some kind of sense of it or to make, at least, peace with it.

We are fortunate to have words as our allies in the struggle. And to have each other, we explorers and chroniclers of the full catastrophe of being human. And to know that in our own ways we are trying to express something meaningful and true about it all.

In memory of Jo and Maggie, two dear friends who died 18 days apart, in March.

Cait JohnsonCait Johnson is the author of six books of spirit-based non-fiction, as well as an editor, ghostwriter, and counselor in private practice. She also writes and directs slightly surreal theatre pieces. The next, Outside Time, will be performed on May 10 and 11 at the Rokeby Estate.


26 thoughts on “Death, Deadlines, and Writing about Grief

    • Thank you, Sheila–it can be good to have something to write when times are difficult. Heck, it can be good to have something to write ANYtime!

    • Thank you, Karyn–It was such a pleasure to get to know you and your work at the last residency. It only made me sorry not to have done so sooner!

  1. Dear Cait,
    Once again I am moved by your ability to bring freshness, clarity, and grace to our universaly shared emotions and experiences.

  2. Hi, Cait — “Thankfulness is woven from the delicate threads of sharing.” Thank you for sharing these beautiful, moving thoughts on such a delicate topic… so sorry for your loss.

  3. As always your words weave magic, actually expressing the inexpressible. “I’m sorry for your losses” is far too shallow a thing to convey what I want to say to you; instead I just wish you solace in your writing, and thank you for sharing so deeply.

  4. You are so right about secretly thinking “it” only happens to neighbors. What a rude awakening to realize otherwise. And what a blessing a deadline can be at such a time, a way to draw us out of that emotional swamp. Thanks for the reminder to stop shirking duty (I just finished Downton Abbey anyway) and start grappling with the messy mystery of it all.

    • Yep, Jill, Downton Abbey only goes so far at a time like this–and I do feel blessed that the deadline forced me to put some of this into words. Thank you for your comment!

  5. Cait,
    Sorry I am late to read this, having loss of my own, but how beautifully you speak to this necessary, unavoidable process we all must take up!

  6. Pingback: Death, Deadlines, and Writing about Grief | Musings of An African Woman

  7. Oh, Cait! How awful to lose two people you love so close together. You must be reeling. Yes, “I’m sorry for your loss” just doesn’t cover it. This is such a beautiful piece, full of startling images, so full of your tender heart. I wish I were there to give you a hug.

  8. Pingback: Calling All Stonecoast Faculty Blog Readers: We Want to Hear From You! | Stonecoast Faculty Blog

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