Grief is very personal. No two people experience it exactly the same way. How our emotions manifest as we go through the process of grieving isn’t always within our control. Many people believe that we only experience grief after the death of a loved one, but grief is the natural response to loss. Loss and grief come in many flavors, colors, and sizes.
The past few years of my life have been . . . challenging. My struggles may not have been as difficult to overcome as the struggles some of you have faced, but I’m not here to compare my experiences or grief with yours or anyone else’s.
In June of 2012 I attended my first residency in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF). After years of putting writing at the bottom of my to do list, even though it was one of the most important activities in my life, I decided to go back to school and earn a second master’s degree. My BA and MA in English didn’t propel me into a career as a college professor or a professional writer like I hoped, but in many ways these degrees prepared me for critical thinking, problem solving and communicating in creative ways in several university positions. Enrolling in SHU’s MFA in WPF gave me the courage and support I needed to not only follow my dreams of becoming a professional writer, but also made me realize there were a lot of other things I needed to change in my life.
I attended my second residency at SHU in January, where I had an amazing heart-to-heart with my good friend and fellow writer, Valerie Burns. She asked me what would make me happy. Based on the answers I came up with, she suggested I make a plan. The following week I applied for a job that would pay more and have fewer duties that was close to my hometown. I wasn’t thrilled about moving back home, but I knew I would have the support of friends and family. A few days after I got the job offer I told my husband I was leaving. About a week or so later, my brother-in-law died suddenly. In March I moved my son and myself into my childhood home and by April 1 I started the new job. We lived with my mom for a few months and then we found our own place in August. In many ways these were positive changes, but there was a lot going on in my life. Lots of plates were spinning dangerously above my head. Separation from my husband after a 10-year relationship, moving, starting a new job, graduate school, and dealing with behavioral issues my son was exhibiting as a single parent.
During this time I was writing my first novel. Despite all the hardships and upheaval, I kept writing.
My father passed away in October last year after a very long battle with complicated illnesses that led to early onset dementia. He lost his health, mind, and eventually his life at the hands of sicknesses that robbed him of his life-long dream of becoming a published author. For years, he researched, plotted, and sketched out ideas for a historical fiction novel about African Americans overcoming oppression to find a space of self-determinism where they could live their lives without the threat of violence. He never wrote that book. I found the title scribbled in one of his many notebooks while cleaning up the house for my mom. The title of his book is now the title of my first book. It’s not the same book he would have written, but I think he would have been very proud of me for finishing my novel.
I’m not going to lie. Life has felt really hard to manage some days. I’ve suffered with depression. Don’t even get me started on the crippling loneliness. Uncertainty. Fear. Anxiety. Anger. Sadness. Emotionally, I’m all over the map. And still, I write. Little bits here and there. A poem (26 last summer). Short stories that seem more like the beginnings of novels. And chapters for a novel I’m hoping to complete a first draft for during Camp NaNoWriMo in July. (Oh shit! That’s today!)
Despite all the upheaval, disappointment, and bullshit I’ve had to deal with in the past few years, I’m still writing. I’m a writer. That’s what I do.
I keep a journal to get through some of the rougher days. Journaling for me is like having a conversation with myself where I work out some of the issues I’m struggling with and try to release the pain clouding my thoughts. A few weeks ago I wrote a letter to my future self. It was very therapeutic. I can’t recommend this exercise enough. It was an act of self love and care that no one else could have provided for me. Not my friends, not my family, no one but me.
I debated whether or not to share this letter publicly. It’s personal. It’s private. However, I think some of you could benefit from the things I told my future self. It helped me rethink what I was going through at the time and helped me come up with a few solutions to problems that were more distractions than useful or supportive aspects of my life.
Takes deep breath…
Dear Future Self,
I love you. You are doing so well and I am proud of you. Keep doing all the amazing things you’ve set your mind and energy on. I’m looking forward to reading all the stories you’ve written and published.
I knew that you would overcome the self-doubt and those feelings of not being good enough to accomplish the goals you set for yourself. Here’s a reminder of the things we were working toward:
- Make Healthier Choices: Better food, more exercise, avoiding toxic relationships, making choices that have a positive effect on you and the people you love.
- Find an Appropriate Partner: Someone who respects you and believes that you are enough, not his whole world, but somewhere at the top of his list. A priority, not an option. Someone willing to build a life with that you can both be proud of at the end of the day.
- Build Stronger Friendships: Spend more time with people who truly value you. You know who they are and who they aren’t. You have a gift for sensing who really has your best interests in mind and who simply wants to bask in or steal your light.
- Be True to Yourself: Know your limits and respect them. It’s okay to say “no” when you feel overwhelmed or underappreciated. Take time to sit quietly, alone or with people you love, and listen to what you need to do to recharge. Your body and spirit will tell you. Don’t ignore the voices inside you.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Walk Away from Bad Situations: I know it sounds ridiculous now, but remember how we used to cling to things and people who made us unhappy? Why did we do that? Did we think our kindness and patience and urging would magically transform them into the people we needed them to be? People will disappoint you. This I promise. You don’t have to stick around to let it keep happening. If someone really loves you, you’ll know the signs. Don’t ignore them.
- You Are Enough: You don’t have to prove your worth to anyone. If you feel like you need to constantly prove your worth to someone, stop for a minute and figure out if that need is internal or external. If it’s internal, find a therapist or spiritual healer and figure that out. If it is external and someone keeps expecting you to be more or do more to please them and they aren’t doing the same for you in return, walk away. Don’t second-guess yourself. Don’t look back. They’ll try to tell you they miss you. Let them.
- Never Stop Learning: People, places, things, and the voices inside our own heads can teach us a lot about ourselves and the world around us. Pay attention. Take notes. Share your knowledge with others.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Fuck Up: Everybody makes mistakes. Own yours and learn from them. That’s how we grow. People who choose to ignore these lessons are not worth your time and energy. You are here to grow and learn. People who refuse to join you on your journey will only hold you back. Mistakes are like bruises, not permanent scars. They do not define us unless we allow them to. Keep moving forward; don’t let fear of making mistakes keep you from reaching your goals.
- Forgive Yourself and Others: You’re not perfect and you don’t have to be. Everybody fucks up sometimes (see above). Don’t dwell on that for too long. Make amends, apologize if necessary, forgive yourself and forgive others when they do stupid things that are hurtful. Carrying around anger only does damage to the vessel in which it is contained. Be angry. Cry. Emote. Then let that shit go. Put it in your art, not your heart.
Stay strong. You’re doing great things.