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Finding the Words in Grief

A few days after my son, James, died of accidental fentanyl poisoning in June 2020, I found myself putting together a makeshift memorial service in the Peninsula Rose Garden Park, a favorite park of his in Portland, Oregon, the city where he lived and died, at age twenty. The day before the service, feeling bereft, I collapsed with a combination of anxiety and exhaustion at the mere thought of writing anything for the service. I emailed a friend who had experienced many losses in his life, telling him that I didn’t know how I would be able to write anything down, let alone write a eulogy. He texted me back: write down how James made you feel. 

 

That simple prompt enabled me to write and deliver a eulogy the next day. The words I found were happiness, kindness, tenderness, awe, and yes, even worry and anxiety. I did my best to share anecdotes that told the stories behind these feelings. I told the sparse crowd gathered on the grassy field that love was the feeling I felt the most. James loved, well and hard, and those who knew him loved him back. He just struggled to love himself. 

 

When I arrived back home in Baltimore, weeks later, with his ashes, I didn’t realize how much I needed to be in the company of others who had lost like me, others who were grieving, others who were struggling with the words and the emotions that were part of the grief landscape we were navigating with no map. That’s when I found LITT, or as I have often said, LITT found me. And there, in my bi-weekly grief group, parents used words to describe their feelings and their fears, described how their bodies and hearts ached, and shared how they felt lonely and sad. Showing and finding the words to express ourselves enabled us to traverse this landscape together, each of us getting lost and finding our way back two weeks later. We were creating a navigational map together with words and stories. 


One of the most common expressions people use in grief is “There are no words.” They say it, write it on cards, send it in emails and texts, and post it on social media as the acceptable way of expressing their condolences. I was guilty of delivering this pervasive expression because I did not know better. But as Colin Campell writes in Finding the Words: Working Through Profound Loss with Hope and Purpose, this expression eliminates any chance of a dialogue about grief. It conditions us not to talk about grief, which often leads to struggles, loneliness, and a sense of abandonment. It tells us there are no words when words are precisely what we need in grief. 

 

My experiences have taught me that words are essential as we navigate grief, whether we are sharing our sorrow with the bereaved or expressing our grief. 


When I returned to Baltimore, I found an empty journal and started my “James Journal.” In the morning, over coffee, I would write letters to him, write down stories I remembered, and made lists of things I did not want to forget: his personality traits and physical characteristics, the music we shared, the food he loved, his favorite bedtime stories, his favorite sports teams. I also found wisdom in quotes I came across, and I transcribed them in my journal: “In grief, those we love mysteriously become more and more a part of who we are,” wrote Mark Nepo; Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “Grief dares us to love once more.” And maybe my favorite, which I jotted down unattributed, is “If you don’t deal with the pain of someone’s death, you will never be able to see the beauty of someone’s life.”  


I signed up for an asynchronous online personal essay class, and with every assignment, I was finding the words to write about James, about grief, about the opioid epidemic, about fentanyl, about love. And I read. Great writers. Writers who understood love and loss, pain and suffering, and put their experiences into words. James Baldwin, one of the greatest American essayists, wrote about the effect of reading on his pain: 


You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive. 


I am searching for my own words now, and I don’t think I will ever be done. It is a quest I am committed to, finding the words and distilling the stories that I want to tell. I also want to help others with their grief through writing, by finding the words in their deepest sorrows. The words are there, but sometimes we need a friend or a prompt in order to get started, like the one I received from my friend. 

 

No matter where you are in relationship to your grief—in the early tumultuous waves that blindside you or later in the slow, steady acknowledgment that your life is different now—you can put the words down. As Colin Campbell writes: “Find the words to express your pain and loss. Tell your grief to others so that you are not alone.”  

 

 

Journaling prompts


Getting ready: Sit in a quiet place and close your eyes. Using your senses, make mental notes of everything that appears to you, all the sounds you hear, and the things you feel in your body. Maybe you have a coffee taste in your mouth. Perhaps the chair you are sitting on is uncomfortable, or a part of your body is aching. Sit for a few minutes, then open your eyes and write down everything you remember. 


Prompts: 

  • Write a letter to your child telling them about your day.  

  • Write a letter to your child about something that is coming up that you are dreading, maybe a holiday, a birthdate, a death date, or a wedding, and tell them what you are feeling as the date approaches.  

  • Turn a line from a favorite poem, essay, or book into a prompt. Using the quotes I shared, mine would be: 

    • Grief dares me to… 

    • If I don’t deal with the pain of your death… 

    • In grief, my love for you mysteriously becomes… 


 

Kristin Seeberger is a Love in the Trenches Grief Group Leader and a certified Peer Grief Counselor who helps parents navigate their grief. This August, she will co-lead The Grief, Love, Loss Retreat with Prema Paxton in Sweden, a retreat focused on helping to heal those who have lost their children to substance use.  

 

For more information about the Grief Loss Love - Retreat, August 4-10, 2024 

 

In June 2023, she graduated with an MFA in writing from Bennington Writing Seminars after a 25-year career in design leadership and brand management.  

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