Why Writing About Grief Is An Uplifting Experience
March 30, 2017 by Allison Gilbert ·
You might assume I’d be the last person you’d want to meet at a cocktail party. And, really, who’d blame you? I’ve written four books about grief and loss, and yet I’ve been told, quite lovingly, I’m really fun to be around. My husband has often said that if he had to sum me up in one word he’d choose, “passionate.” I really like that description. You might even call me bubbly.
Each book I’ve written is the result of successfully pushing through an unwanted experience and using that moment for something more powerful than anger and self-pity.
I wrote my first book, Covering Catastrophe, after nearly dying on 9/11. I was a producer at WNBC-TV in New York and when the second tower collapsed I thought I was going to be buried alive. The dust cloud smashed me into a sidewalk and emergency crews dragged me off the street so I wouldn’t be crushed by falling debris. I was taken by ambulance to the Emergency Room at Bellevue Hospital. Doctors cut off my clothes to examine my skin, and shoved tubes down my throat so I could breathe.
Physically, I was fine. Emotionally, though, I was in trouble. I had panic attacks for days. Because of what I and so many other journalists experienced, I decided to write a book documenting what it was like to be a broadcaster that day, both personally and professionally. Creating this book with other reporters and producers was cathartic for all of us, and what happened after publication was even better. Covering Catastrophe was turned into a documentary by the U.S. State Department and we donated all the royalties to 9/11-related charities. My coeditors and I went on to transfer our publishing rights to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, funneling proceeds into the Museum to fund its programs and exhibitions in perpetuity. Giving back is the best emotional Band-Aid I know.
Three days after September 11, my father died of cancer. I was 31. Almost immediately (and because my mother had died several years earlier) I felt compelled to write about my parents’ deaths. Always Too Soon was hard to write because for the years it took me to complete, my parents’ deaths were always with me. I had to deal with how much I missed them with every period and comma I typed. What kept me going was the hope I’d help others cope with similar pain. My muse was an imaginary group of readers who needed comfort and validation. Writing felt right.
Later, in Parentless Parents, I wrote not only about how the loss of my parents affected me, but also the myriad ways their absence continues to impact my children. Since the book came out, Parentless Parents support groups have taken shape all over the country, and the Parentless Parents Community Page on Facebook continues to grow. Conversations with readers, both in person and online, have been meaningful and real — for these courageous men and women, and for me. The more we connect about our losses, the more we grow to understand we’re not alone.
And now with my newest book, Passed and Present, I’ve learned that honoring and celebrating the past has significant restorative power. In fact, being proactive about remembering loved ones drives resilience, sparks creativity, and brings remarkable joy. Nostalgia is one of grief’s best antidotes. (To read more about how we can all live our fullest lives when we accept that absence and presence can coexist, read my article featured in O, the Oprah Magazine).
In truth, my upbeat attitude is shaped by creating new and different conversations about loss and connecting with so many thoughtful and open-hearted readers. Ultimately, the most important lessons I’ve learned from writing are these:
First, I’m not alone. And second, being proactive about nurturing relationships — the loved ones who have passed and all our friends, family, and other connections in the present — stirs and propels enormous joy.
Originally published at allisongilbert.com on March 30, 2017.