The holiday is a time of great anxiety in an anxious world. Anxiety is endemic. Things are moving at lightning speed in a chaotic world.
Maybe that's why ten years ago, I began writing my memoir. Anxiety revolved around suddenly being alone without a partner, raising two children on my own, and keeping up with a fast-paced, deadline-oriented job. Still, it took thirteen years after John died before I began writing. I literally had no idea what it would entail. I had a vague notion I would pen something entertaining, a page turner that might resonate with women widowed at a young age who resorted to online dating. I needed a creative outlet for my writing skills after my career ended.
Later, I learned that writing Again In a Heartbeat: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Dating Again offered a way to heal, a way to look at what was cracked and broken in my life. I felt terribly guilty that I hadn’t been kinder to John at the end of his life. It was this personal recrimination that haunted me and hindered the transformation necessary to grow and move on. I was stuck in reliving my own transgressions. My failings.
Through the writing and then by sharing my story with readers, I accepted that much during those final years of my marriage had been beyond my control—namely his illness and, ultimately, the tragedy of his untimely death. What was in my control was the decision to write my story. I couldn’t change the past but I could reconstruct what I had been feeling during that time and why.
At first, it was a hazy process, as those of us who go back in time and parse “turning point” events know. I learned that bad moments take hold in memory and are almost impossible to shake … for example, that terrible moment when I shouted at him, “I wish I’d never met you!” I couldn't change that reality, or ever take back those words. So, that meant forgiving myself and forgiving John. Both of us were caught in an impossible situation―terminal cancer. Now, by writing, I could stop punishing myself. I had always been too hard on myself, anyway, as John often reminded me. John had never sought my forgiveness ... that claim that somehow I had failed as a wife and as a woman, I laid at my own feet.
Not writing my story wasn't an option. Rather, it seemed the next logical step in a long trajectory of grief, anxiety and guilt. Of course, there was nothing logical about revisiting the pain and heartache of the past. In fact, it was illogical. Still, it called me and captured my imagination. That, I would later understand, was the creative within me urging me to free myself.
Writing is a way to fill the hole in our hearts. Writing is a way to come to terms with the pain, the guilt, the grief and the anxiety that those emotions engender.
Writing is a way to reroute, what Biblical scholars refer to as metanoia― "a change in one's way of life resulting from penitence or spiritual conversion." (Wikipedia) The action of turning around by focusing less on ourselves and our grievances with others, means embracing the larger picture. I could no longer blame the doctors, blame John, blame God, blame myself.
Finally, there is one incident I want to share. A couple years after the publication of Again in a Heartbeat, all the hard work of going back to the past and writing came together.
"Do you remember me?" A small woman with snow white hair stood by my table of books and bright red poinsettias. I had come to the local library to talk about memoir. She smiled and her eyes crinkled at the corners. "I'm Sandy," she said ... and then, I remembered. In a quiet room eighteen years before, the only sound was my voice breaking into a sob. "It's not fair. He was too young, too good a person to die." Sandy smiled and said, "Remember, Susan, he loved you." Now on this pale winter day in the library, my former therapist and grief counselor held my memoir, reading the synopsis on the back of the book. She looked up at me. "I have two clients who recently lost their husbands. I want to give them your book. I'm thinking of starting a grief support group in a church," she added. "Thank you for writing this."
Just those words, “He loved you” was enough―more than enough to sustain me in the years since then. That my grief had been channeled in a way that might help others also made me realize that writing and sharing my story allowed me to rise above my own darkness and move toward the light.
My holiday wish for all writers―embrace your writing. Move beyond the crisis that hobbles the spirit and will. Give yourself the gift of love.