Writing a Memoir: Reliving the Pain

I struggled to compose this post for the simple fact of not knowing whether to talk about grief in general or my relationship with grief.  As life would have it, someone close to me passed away last week. Honestly, I’m not sure how to feel.

Most of the time, I don’t know how I should be processing my pain. I’d rather avoid it. Sometimes it seems just plain selfish to grieve over a persons death but not their suffering.

Ms. Brown, my feisty elderly client that I took care of was recovering in nursing home from a botched hip surgery.  Only in her mid-seventies, but had many physical limitations and chronic health issues. Despite her condition, Ms. Brown maintained mental agility. The clients whose minds haven’t caught up with their bodies put up the biggest fight receiving care. They simply haven’t learned to let go.

Last Thursday, I received a phone call that she wasn’t doing well. I awoke early the next day to see her in the hospital but the desk clerk said that she had been discharged.

“Wait a minute,” I said, “discharged?” “What do you mean?” I asked.

The clerk looked at the screen. “It says here that she was discharged at 4 a.m.”

There was no way possible Ms. Brown left this hospital in her condition. “Did she go home or pass away?” I asked. Just hearing myself ushered in a flood of emotions: Helplessness. Frustration. Grief.

He insisted she had been discharged. I left the hospital and called Ms. Brown’s best friend. She confirmed Ms. Brown passed away through the night.

No rational explanation could support the sense of guilt I felt.  I’ve been in this place many times before. I never just not showed up or waited and hoped for the best. When I make the decision to be there, it’s to the bitter end. I wanted to be present during Ms. Brown’s transition just like I had been for others. To hold her hand and pray her through it.  No matter how bad the situation, my only focus is leaving nothing undone.  I needed to make amends.

I agreed to go and pack up Ms. Brown’s room at the nursing facility. The moment I opened the door, it’s like the air got sucked right out of the building. People questioned me about Ms. Brown’s sudden passing. It felt funny to even say her name knowing she’d never answer to it again. Everything hit me at once. This would be my last visit.

I picked up a half-eaten bag of Cheetos. Ms. Brown’s favorite. I froze—not knowing whether to throw away the bag or save it. I mean, it wasn’t just a bag of Cheetos, it was Ms. Brown’s bag. Part of me realized I had to let go of that bag but knowing the second I did, it’d all be over. I let the bag hover over the trash for a few moments before letting it goletting her go.

Over the last four years, I’ve learned that grief isn’t reserved for death. People grieve over many traumatic experiences. But, often times, don’t realize it because death isn’t attached to it. Death sends a loud and clear message that we should be grieving. I can’t begin to tell you all the things I’ve grieved over apart from physical loss.

In my biography, By Your Side, I journeyed back to high school and returning home from basketball practice to my baby brother crying that he was hungry. He relayed the message that our dad told me to fix him something to eat. That evening, I was so exhausted I couldn’t see straight. So, I told him “No, I’m not cooking.” He ran back into the room crying.

The memory brought me to tears. Devastated by my selfishness, I couldn’t continue writing. To think of how helpless he was. He waited all evening for me to get home only to be rejected. The memory haunts me every time I close my eyes.

Writing a memoir will bring out the worst in you and everyone around you. Family and friends will have to deal with you as you journey through the past. And, cope with you possibly sharing events they much rather forget. Be prepared to clear a series of emotional hurdles.

There is a reason it took me two years to finish my book: tension in my soul. Remembering the past is consoling. Reliving the past is torture. The gift and the curse. Life has blessed you with the opportunity to go back but snatched away any chance at changing a single thing. You’ll have to find a way to cope with all the mistakes you’ve made. Or, attempt to make amends with those you’ve harmed.

Ebenezer Scrooge lives in us all.

Trust me, when I began writing, I set out to avenge all the wrong ever committed against myself and others but soon realized, at times, I was the anti-heroine fighting for my own self-interests.

Grief is mind-bending. It debates the nature of life. We rush others into recovery to avoid being pulled away by the rip current of their emotions. It doesn’t matter how many times we experience grief, we can’t control it. No one plans to grieve. When you think you should be, it doesn’t happen. When the coast is clear, it sneaks up on you.

One morning, out of the blue, a friend shared that she was molested at seven years old, by a male family friend. She awakened to the traumatic memory—overwhelming her with anger and pain. She never told her mother what happened. While she shared her experience, I struggled with how she could forget an event of that nature. At the time, her mother was terminally-ill. I asked if she would tell her. She opposed the idea because her mother couldn’t do anything about it. She was already enduring enough pain.

Still very curious, I asked, “What are you going to do? You should talk to someone?”

“That’s why I’m telling you,” she said.

“Oh, I meant a professional.”

She said, “I know, me too!” We both laughed.

Through my own experience, I learned that grief unlocks the unconscious mind. So our attempts to bury stressful traumatic events are futile. While my friend grieved her mother’s impending death, she also grieved not being protected and the life altering decisions that took her down a path of drug addiction and abusive relationships.

What does grief and death have to do with writing?

Writing with passion and humility makes it difficult for the reader to tear from the clutches of the author. If you were waiting for the irony, here it is: To write a stellar biography, you must die.

Dying is only a path of discovery, which we call life. It’s during our journey that we endure tribulation, which supports us in discovering ourselves by challenging our sense of purpose. During my tribulation, my senses burst open—upon reflection—I began to grieve every relationship etched into the fabric of my soul.

In the early stages of composition, I fought hard to hang on to what little dignity I had left. My writing suffered as a result. Basically, the first several chapters sucked. Some days, I struggled to make sense of what I was trying to say. When I allowed myself to metaphorically die and grieve the past, my story began to write itself.

Sharing your grief is good for everybody. Think about the freedom you’ll gain. You get to release, and others get an opportunity to fix themselves through your painful experiences.

Only a hand full of professions require total butt-nakedness. Writer is one of them. I will continue to stress this point: You need to be absolutely certain that you’re ready to live openly. Once everything is exposed there’s no going back.

Live. Bless. Prosper.


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