I am no stranger to grief.

I wish it were not so.  The first 27 years of my life were charmed: I grew up in a healthy family with parents who loved each other and my brother and me.  We were about as functional as it’s possible to be, I think, and I grew up seeing the world as a safe and fairly predictable place.  Tragedy and loss were things that happened to other people and in books, and apart from glimpses of the darker side that came to me through the lives of some of my friends and classmates, I was sheltered and protected.

And then my father died.  I was the fabled Daddy’s girl – I adored him, and his death changed everything.  The world was suddenly not such a safe place after all:  if HE could die, then anything might happen.  His death made me grow up.  I had children, of my own.  I learned to stand on my own two feet.

And then my husband died, suddenly, in a motorcycle crash.   Again, the crushing loss of the individual, and with it a complete restructuring of my beliefs about life, the universe, and everything.  What is the meaning of a world where people die like this, where is God in it all, how do the ones left behind create an entirely new life and not end up small and bitter?

We got through it, my boys and I, and it made us better and larger human beings.  I’ve learned to live life mindfully on the whole, to focus on what is important and let the little things go by.  (Not that I’m perfect in this, but I am learning.)  I have a greater capacity for the grief and hurt of others which helps me in my profession of helping other people who are in crisis.

This past week, my former co-worker and very close friend, a brilliant, warm, funny and totally original human being, ended his own life.  This is a new and different kind of loss, one that again challenges all of my beliefs about the nature of things and my own ability to help anybody else find their way through the morass.  I feel fractured and off balance; even knowing the grieving process from the inside out, knowing all of the tools available to me, all of the wise advice I’ve learned for myself and dispensed to others over the years, still I am once more reeling beneath the assault.

Those of you who have been here know that grief is more than an emotion.  It is a full mind/body/spirit onslaught that sucks up all of your energy.  Eating and sleeping are affected, energy levels cycle from feeling pasted to the couch to a restless frenzy that has you up cleaning house or tackling weird and previously unthought of projects at unusual hours of the night.

Which brings me, inevitably, to writing.  Words can be wonderfully healing things.  Journaling has been my salvation over the years – there is something about pen moving over paper, about pouring out the inchoate emotional mess and making some sort of sense out of it, acknowledging the dark thoughts, even the rage against the dead, in a safe place where nobody gets hurt.

But the other writing, the writing involving plot and structure and carefully developed scenes, that takes energy and energy is at a premium.  There is a healing in it, though, in the careful building of characters and worlds in a medium where there is some control.  I get to choose, in the novels I write, who gets to live or die.  If characters go off into that good night in my stories, I am sad to see them go but at least they’ve had my permission, and they continue to live on the page.  Goodbye’s are said, last moments cherished.  They never suddenly and unexpectedly vanish into the dark.

Swimming North, my current WIP, was inspired by my friend who chose to step out of his life.  Still he is here with me.  He was the one who introduced me to Vivian the Penguin, an unexpected rebel who took the transmitter Scientists attached to him and swam in entirely the wrong direction until he was lost sight of.   Together we came up with ‘swimming north’ as a metaphor for going your own way rather than following the path established for you.  He opened my mind to concepts and ideas I’d never even considered, usually involving twists of reality that constantly made me blink in wonder, finding myself in a real life Looking Glass World.  All of these things have found their way into Swimming North, and so working on this novel keeps him with me.

It also makes me feel a weight of responsibility, as if my words somehow have the ability to keep him in this world, to share his brilliance with others.  I feel small and insufficient to this task, it daunts me.  Rather than being a playground, the book suddenly looks like a quest, and I fear to ruin it by taking it too seriously.  And yet, I begin to feel the need to write.  My muse is sitting across the room shooting spit wads whenever I’m not looking.  “Enough,” she says.  “Let’s play.”

I am looking at the manuscript, a little like a stranger.  I have changed since I last wrote, even though it is only a matter of days.  And I wonder how the changes in me will affect the story itself.  My muse tells me to stop taking myself so seriously, that she will take care of everything as she always does.  “Trust me,” she says.

I have no choice.  To risk alienating her would be to risk everything.  She is a constant.  Through all of the deaths and losses and changes, through all of the brilliant and wonderful things in my world as well, she has been there.  I’ve neglected her sometimes, locked her in closets.  She resents that sort of thing.  She sulks.  So it is time to get back to work.

“You don’t have to write his ideas,” she tells me.  “Write yours, as they were shaped or inspired by him.  Write from what you are, and from what knowing him has made you.  That is the true memorial to him, not your words – the ways that he became a part of who you are.”

She’s right, you know.  She always is.

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