Swimming Sideways: Navigating Grief As A Writer And An Artist

“Hi. I am a fellow writer and have enjoyed your blog over the years. I know you lost your mom recently and I wanted to share my condolences. I, also, lost mine over a year ago and it has completely paralyzed me — stopped me in my creative tracks. I read your blog regarding self-care: do you take time to lick your wounds or soldier on? Not to bring you down, but I’ve found that soldiering on, for me, is impossible — and the more I try, the worse I feel… like I’ve been abandoned on the lower end of a see-saw — my heels stuck in the dirt. I have started three separate books and have abandoned them all and am stymied: writing was how I got someone to jump on the other end of the see saw — but I’m still there, alone on the playground. “Just write” are the words I hear. Writing words are easy. Writing a cohesive story is not. No one understands, not my therapist, my agent, my loved ones, not even myself. I don’t know what I want you to say, if anything, I just wanted to write THESE words down to someone who I think understands.”

That came from an email I received, and I wanted to respond to it, but I didn’t know how. And I didn’t know that my answer would be fruitful, or useful, or even sensible, honestly. But just the same, I wanted to say something about this. Many somethings, as a matter of fact, and so here I am to do exactly that. I want to acknowledge this question and this email, even if I cannot answer it, not truly.

What I want to say is this:

Grief is water. Grief is wave, river, and lake, it is the sea, it is a current.

You do not control it; rather, you can only respond to it. It wants what it wants, and it is always moving, ready to fill the low spaces. Sometimes you’re in its shallows, sometimes you step wrong and you’re in its tireless, unrelenting depths looking for light, trying to find which way is up. But it’s always there. Sometimes wet on your feet. Other times a fog, a mist, a light rain.

There are rocks to crash against. Shoals to trap you. Probably some pinchy crabs, too.

When my father died, I wrote my way through it. I don’t know that I wrote my way out of it, though that’s what I told myself at the time. Simply, I had work, I had deadlines, and they were an anchor chain to hold onto down there in the dark. Was it healthy? I don’t know. Probably not. But I had bills to pay and at that point I wasn’t a proper novelist, but had freelance clients whose books would not wait for my words; I either wrote them and they’d be in there with some coin in my pocket, or I wouldn’t, and the books would go on without me. So I wrote anyway. Not because of. But rather, despite. Or even in spite, or to spite the grief — to spit in the unfair eye of an unfuckwithable universe, to assert my control over something I surely did not control.

This time, I didn’t. The grief is different somehow but so is the situation — a lot more chaos in my life, and also, fewer immediate deadlines. (I still have them, but they’re longer on the horizon.) Maybe too there’s a difference in losing a mother versus losing a father, I don’t know. I know that I’ve tried writing some fresh words and they were mostly just crumbs, and stale crumbs, at best, so I resorted instead to doing reading and research, which has been a good default. I’ll get there. I’m starting to feel like I want to get there. I can see how to swim up. But the water wants what it wants. It goes where it goes and I’ll have to respond to it.

And that’s all I know how to do. I can’t bail myself out of it with a bucket. I can’t fly above it. It’s water, as prevalent and present as it is all around us — it’s in the air, in our bodies, it’s our sweat and our tears. (And don’t forget: crying is just our eyes puking up sadness.) You can’t get away from it. You can’t dry it up, or out. You can only respond to it. Do you write through it? I don’t know. Maybe. Do you write garbage even knowing its garbage just to keep fresh? If you want. Do you write about it, as I’m doing here? If you’d like. Or do you rest for a while? Writing isn’t always writing. Sometimes writing is resting. (Though, writing is also knowing when not to rest, even when it feels easiest to do exactly that. Sometimes, hard as it is, you gotta wake up.) The river takes you where it takes you; it’s up to you whether you follow its path or reach for shore. Or maybe —

Maybe grief is undertow. You don’t swim away from it. You damn sure don’t swim into it. You swim sideways. You find a way left or right and you swim out of its current. That’s the only response, I think. What that looks like, in form, is up to you. But I want to say it’s okay to write, it’s okay not to write, it’s okay to write badly, it’s okay to write beautifully in a way that isn’t practical or useable, it’s okay to write about it or write to avoid it. Whatever it is you create, it’s a response to the grief or looking away from it. Toward it to see it and understand it, or from it to escape it.

It’s swimming sideways.

All I know is, keep on going. Keep swimming. Those we have lost would want us to, wouldn’t they? One suspects it might be their greatest wish, and so we honoring them by doing exactly that, in whatever we we can muster, in whatever direction we find best, with our strongest stroke.

Stay afloat, fellow writer. Respond to the current. You are not its master, but nor is it yours.

30 responses to “Swimming Sideways: Navigating Grief As A Writer And An Artist”

  1. Yes. Thank you. I lost my mom and my dad 8 and 7 years ago respectively. Today the current or river or waves – whatever it is – overflowed a bit. Because I hate
    Christmas time now. Alone without them. But I’ll make it with the floating bits thrown out there to hold on to.
    Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Chuck. I wish I’d had this a few years ago. My sister died suddenly and then so did my dad, 6 weeks later. (My mom died a long time ago). My entire immediate family was gone in a blink…and I had a manuscript to finish and a co-author waiting on me. I wrote in a fog and when the series was done I…stopped. I couldn’t write and then I hated myself for not writing. Your water metaphor is dead on. Swimming out of that undertow was exhausting.

  3. I pass on some wise words said to me when grieving… “look after your physical health, look after your mental health [and those of your family], and look after the paperwork. Nothing else is important.’

    I would add that although it didn’t stop me writing, in fact I think writing helped me through it, but my brain was shot to pieces and I’ve only just got back the memory and intelligence needed for my former job. That’s over ten years of recovery time.

    We each take these things differently. Take it at the right pace for you.

    Sending peace and restfulness


  4. I lost someone recently too, and it has been so hard. I’ve felt so lost, staring at a word document for hours. Thanks for just putting these words out there.

  5. I knew you’d understand, Chuck. Yeah, she would want me to stay afloat and keep dog paddling, for sure, but for chrissakes, I wish she’d throw me a life jacket–I’d take a slimy piece of driftwood at this point. At the risk of taking the metaphor too far, I hope I’ll be swimming along in the waters again soon–in the meantime, although I am so sorry for your loss, it’s comforting to know I’m not alone in the open sea. Thank you.

  6. Yes. That is all so true, Chuck, et al… I often retell the story of when my mother was dying and how I read at night, in the guest room, while she was in her room struggling through 4th stage lung cancer. I read two of the most horribly depressing books in the world, while understanding that I NEEDED to read something stark and painful that reflected my reality. One of the books was The Road by Cormack McCarthy… so deeply dark and yet brilliant in its powerful prose; the other book I read was the script version of The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion- who lost her husband while her daughter was struggling for her life in the hospital. The water metaphor abounds in the script. If you can’t write, just read that script, sit with it all, be silent, scream, be with people, be alone, but basically, just BE. The writing will come. Or it won’t. But when you are ready to come up for air, you’ll be able to decide whether your heart wants to write some more. Joan did, right straight through it all, but I suspect it was a way to keep her own inner monologue going and to heal as that was how she could do it. Hang in there.

  7. One of the definitions of heroism is action in the face of grief and sorrow. I’ve served in Special Operations, deployed, seen a tough men do things people consider heroic in the standard framework. But my wife’s ability, having just undergone painful surgery, to keep functioning when I had to tell her of the death of our youngest boy, and afterward, was the most heroic thing I’ve ever seen.

    I only wish I had handled it as well. I tried to keep writing as my career had just hit a high point with the first title hitting the NYT List, but in retrospect I wasn’t functioning well. I wasn’t there for her as much as I should have been. I didn’t process my grief but rather lashed out, tried to bury it. It took years for me to unravel that knot, to begin to make amends which I am still in the process of, to deal with a loss that will never be assuaged.

    The grief does not get less with time, but what I can do is work to be a better husband, father, grandfather and person. It’s a tough job for who I am and I have to remind myself every day to do better.

  8. Thank you for this (and your last post as well on self-care as well) When I am struggling to find a coherent way to express something and then stumble across someone who finds those for words for me, it is incredibly comforting. For the past six years, I’ve been grieving, not a person, but rather the loss of self & ability, as I battle young onset Parkinson’s. Grief is not a linear process (wasn’t linear when I’ve grieved a person either.) If I manage to find an island of acceptance, the disease changes and imposes fresh challenges, I have to adjust all over again, to grieve new losses. I am currently using art (painting/drawing) as a lifeboat to keep from drowning in sadness and as transport to happier moments. The water metaphor you used feels quite apt.

  9. It took me these last 2 years to get over my mom dying. We didn’t part well. And then recently we had to put down our 20 year old cat with whom we had a very communicative and interactive relationship. That was over a week ago and we cried a lot, and still makes me cry if I dwell on it. Time is the healer for me and it moves slowly.

  10. Yes! I read this email and read your words Chuck and had to reply to this.

    I haven’t been in here for a long, long time, but yet have been struggling to write of late as well because I’m working through grief right now as well. Early last year, my best friend of 30 years took her own life. She was on the other side of the planet, but her death absolutely gutted me. I felt as though the world meant nothing to me. And when I tried to write? Well, it came out as nothing. There was no there, there (you know what I mean). I had known my friend since we were 8 and 9 years old and she attended my primary school for a year; and we never lost touch over the years.
    She became famous, wrote music, sang to the Queen, went to the White House and sang there… dude, she went places I couldn’t. Meanwhile, I was struggling with my health, my work, trying to get published but nobody wanted to know me. When she died, the air went out of the room, out of my life. The colour left my world. I took on NaNoWriMo last year, and don’t even remember what I wrote, but it was crap. My head just wasn’t in it. I started painting instead. I stopped reading, stopped journaling and writing… my way to deal with grief was through painting and recreating my garden. it took over $500 and I went to therapy, and my art class (I took art class anyway as well as writing at home) and everyone said to do what it took to get back to what I wanted to do.
    I took on NaNoWriMo this month and, you know what? I’m kicking ass this year. Something just clicked with it. I’m focusing this time around, and it feels great! I’m sleeping better too. I do get some days where it’s awful, and I miss her like crazy; and I jump online to message her on FB, out of habit (because we used to talk when I couldn’t sleep at night here in Australia, and she’d be awake during the day in the UK)… and I’d have to remember she’s not there anymore.Then, I’d call her Mum, and we’d chat for a while.

    But like you said, grief is like water… and you’re right. The ebb and flow of it is truly unpredictable.

  11. YES! This has been my own analogy. If I may, I would like to add this–while it’s got you, don’t fight it or you may drown. Your job is only to keep your head above water, keep breathing, until it lets you go. We’ve taken some hits, my family, and I’m having a hard time catching my breath. I don’t know why it helps to know I’m not alone, but it does. Thank you all.

  12. Thanks for this, Chuck. At the start of 2016, I was preparing to self-publish my first novel, when my father became severely ill and was hospitalized for almost 3 weeks. Two weeks after he returned home, he passed away. That was traumatic enough. But, less than 5 months later, my dog died. Granted he was 14 and starting to suffer from a heart ailment. And I told people I honestly believed my dad came back and took him because he absolutely loved that little dog! With all of that, my novel fell to the side, and I didn’t get it published until last year.

    Now, I’m dealing with an aging mother whose health is collapsing rapidly and a house that’s showing signs of its nearly half century of existence. Sadly, all of that has delayed publication of my second novel. But, as I’ve told some suicidal friends in the past, I know the world will not stop because of my problems or even my death. I’m not one of those who will be upset when science finally discovers the center of the universe and I’m not it.

    Still, I know my father would have become very upset with me, if I didn’t pursue my writing ambitions. Years ago both he and my mother considered them whimsical dreams of a young man just trying to find his way in this world. Until I told them I was serious. Eventually, though, they came around to realize that I meant it and wasn’t deterred by anyone and anything in making those so-called dreams a reality.

    Those ambitions continue in full force today and will not die until I do.

  13. It gets pretty dark when the waters come deep. Thanks for shining a little light to an artist who lost another artist, my own daughter.

  14. Thanks for writing this, Chuck. It’s strangely timely for me. We had to go out of state for my husband’s uncle’s funeral last week, and while we were gone our cat, who was basically our kid, got really sick. Two days after we got back from the funeral, she was gone.
    Grief really is like water, and it is really easy to drown in it. I am so sorry about your mom, and everyone else commenting here about their own losses. May we all stay afloat in this terrible ocean.

  15. Love this…but I think it depends on the grief, too. When my mom died, I wrote my way through it. As I’ve gone through a heartbreaking breakup where I’ve also lost my SO’s kids while my dog was simultaneously diagnosed with a terminal illness, I find myself completely paralyzed and exhausted. I see both sides of this.
    On the second version, I find that getting out more, seeing friends, Netflix, being creative in other ways (painting, building, cooking), cleaning/purging…these things are helping. Maybe they can help your reader as well. Thanks for the blog.

  16. My Dad died January 8th of this year. He was a sweet man and we were close. We didn’t leave anything unsaid. I didn’t have time to cry then, and since he died of Lewy Body Dementia, I cried a little everyday during the 4.5 years I took care of him. I’m crying a lot now. But in the last week when people ask how I am I’ve been saying that I’m swimming in a river of grief. And then I read your piece. Thank you so very much. PS Why is it that when you to water of grief overtakes you that a whole bunch of other things that you didn’t know you were grieving jump into the current with you?

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