Musings on Grief and Comfort

“Words fail me.” This saying has proven true several times in my life, usually when confronted with an extreme emotion—particularly grief.

Grief is Universal

Grief is a primal and universal emotion—it has existed for all of mankind’s history, in every corner of the Earth. Some cultures still invoke grief rituals involving keening or wailing or rending of garments, and sometimes I think these are the truest demonstrations of an emotion that comes from our deepest selves and predates our use of words.

Yet we do use words to express grief. It may seem strange that as a writer I find words oddly fragile in the face of this emotion. We say things like “I’m sorry for your loss” and “My condolences”,  and we mean them with all of our being. They are only a pale reflection of what we want to express, yet we understand them to speak much more than the flimsy words convey, and accept the true depth of feeling behind the words.

Grieving is Specific

While grief itself is universal, the process of grieving is specific to the individual. Some people grieve openly and loudly; some crawl away and sob in the dark. Some throw themselves deeper into living; others withdraw from life. Some need to talk their grief away; others hold it deep inside. Some need the comfort of people around them; others need quiet to find peace. Some recover from grief quickly; others wrestle for many years. There is no one right way to grieve—each person must make the journey through grief in their own way.

Comfort is also found in places unique to the individual. Some find it in the arms of others, while some find it in the solitude of nature. Some find it in the bustle of life, while others find it in the stillness of home. Some find it in religion, others in memories of loved ones, still others in music or art. I know in times of grief I take comfort in a frenzy of organizing and cleaning, a metaphorical attempt to regain a sense of control and make sense of my inner turmoil.

Grief is for the Living

One truism of grief is that funerals are not for the dead—they are for the living. We cannot truly mourn the deceased. After all, we would not mourn their life—since we loved them—yet we also cannot mourn their death, either. Almost everyone, whether you believe in an afterlife or believe there is nothing after death, will agree that the departed person is beyond the reach of pain, suffering, and the other cares of this world. So we gather not to mourn them, but to mourn the light that no longer shines in our life, to seek ways to fill the hole where our loved one used to be. Grief is for the living, and funeral services are where those of us left behind begin to find comfort and healing.

I saw many expressions of both grief and comfort this past week at a relative’s funeral, but there is one that has etched itself indelibly on my soul.

After the funeral service, we adjourned to a rural mountain cemetery, one of those places where the sky meets the earth and heaven seems but a step away from where you stand. We gathered around the grave as generations of mourners had done before us on that peaceful hill. The preacher began to sing. I don’t remember the words, but they are irrelevant, for just as grief is from a time before words, so is comfort.

The preacher’s strong, raspy voice rolled across the cemetery, washing grief away and flinging it defiantly to the sky and the hills. And the mountains caught our grief and echoed comfort back to us, as the ancient earth assured us that the deepest stab of grief is temporary, while the powerful bond of our love is eternal.

A place where grief finds peace




The Best of The Goose’s Quill 2015

At the beginning of a new year, we typically look forward to the year ahead. Sometimes, though, it is helpful to look back in order to see how far you have come, and evaluate how you did in the past year. I examined my top 20 posts this past year and found that readers read a good mixture of craft and marketing, as well as some of my more personal writing-life posts. In case you missed any, here are the Best of The Goose’s Quill 2015. Enjoy!

  1. When The Hero Is Not The Protagonist
  1. What Big Question Do You Write To Answer?
  1. How To Measure Growth As A Writer
  1. Our Characters’ Other Lives
  1. Adventures In The Land of Zal
  1. Marketing: Doing The Things You Don’t Want To Do
  1. Book Trailer Beginnings
  1. The Truth About Your Productivity
  1. Anticipation Angst and Announcement
  1. The New To-Do List
  1. Introverts, Extroverts, and Social Pain
  1. The Insidious Persistence of Grief
  1. My Biggest Takeaway: 2015 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference
  1. Philadelphia Writers’ Conference: My Annual Oil Change
  1. Writing Longhand: A Generational Divide
  1. Working Vacation: Yes or No?
  1. Empathy: Curse or Blessing?
  1. Revising My Writing Process
  1. Marketing Bits and Pieces

And my #1 post of 2015:

  1. THE WITCH OF ZAL Cover Reveal and Surprise!


Thank you for reading in 2015—I hope you continue to join me in 2016!

The Insidious Persistence of Grief

Regular readers of my blog know I struggle with anxiety disorder. Anxiety can be exacerbated by many things, such as lack of sleep and a collision of multiple outside stressors. Basically, anything that knocks aside my regular routine can trigger a rise in anxiety—even if I really want to do whatever it is that rocks the boat.

Over the past few weeks, my anxiety has been through the roof. I assumed at first that the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference was the culprit, since that is a major bump in my routine. Three days away from home, mixing and mingling, add in lack of sleep, and that’s enough to trigger me.

DSCN9802The PWC came and went, but the anxiety remained—a tension that ran from my throat to my stomach. Maybe my daughter’s preschool graduation was stressing me? That, too, came and went with no change. On top of the tension, I felt weepy, too—rather odd for me. What was going on?

Friday, June 19th, my anxiety peaked. The strangled feeling at the base of my throat made it hard to swallow, and made talking difficult. I didn’t want to eat. Anxiety-fatigue sucked the life from me, but I fought against it, recognizing my long-time enemy. I got my daughter ready for her first sleep-over, while often on the verge of tears.

That night, my husband and I went to see Huey Lewis and the News at the Borgata in Atlantic City. I knew the concert couldn’t possibly be the source of my anxiety. I had hardly even thought about it, I’d been so busy the past few weeks. Besides, the normal things I stress about—the driving and the venue—didn’t exist this time. My husband drove, and I had been to Atlantic City (although not the Borgata) enough times to feel at ease. I had even seen Huey Lewis twice before.

DSCN1540Huey Lewis put on a great show, as I expected. I rocked out, and every song brought a tsunami of memories from my younger days. Then he played Jacob’s Ladder. I teared up. My nose got sniffly. A sob rose in my throat.

And I understood.

Jacob’s Ladder was never one of my favorite Huey songs, but it took on new meaning when my friend Donna Hanson Woolman got cancer. The song is about a man trying to better his life, climbing “step by step, rung by rung” and all he wants from tomorrow “is to get it better than today.” Whenever I heard that song while Donna was fighting for her life, that was my wish—for the chemo to work a little every day, to climb back to health—to get it better than today.

One of the memories that had come flooding back as I listened to Huey Lewis play at the Borgata was the last time I had seen him play. Back in 2001, the group had toured to support their new album Plan B. Donna and I had seen them at the Keswick Theater, and that concert stands as one of the best I have ever seen. Huey played for more than 3 hours. He had to get permission from the unions to play past curfew. He rocked the house and Donna and I rocked with him, thrilled when he played songs he rarely played in his regular length sets.

That was the last concert I went to with Donna.

My mind had forgotten…

But my heart remembered.



When has grief caught you unawares?

Sandy Hook School Shooting: A Wake-Up Call For Our Nation

I can’t stop thinking about the Sandy Hook tragedy. It hit me very, very hard. Grief-stricken and dazed. I didn’t know anyone there personally. I had no connection to the town. But the pain and the horror struck me like nothing has since 9/11.

I am left with the overwhelming conviction that something must be done. It should not be this easy to kill children.

It should not be.

One of the things that disturbed me was when they said that the killer’s mother had guns as a “hobby.” Perhaps because I am a writer, I am sensitive to the power of words. And although I have heard about people’s gun “hobbies” before, this time it really struck me how wrong that word is. Woodworking is a hobby. Genealogy is a hobby. Knitting is a hobby. Lethal weapons should not be a “hobby” comparable to those. I have heard people refer to their guns as “toys” and going out to shoot as “playing” with said toys. These words should not be used in conjunction with guns. It sends the wrong message. For those of you who are serious about your gun passion, please deter people from speaking this way. It diminishes what these weapons are meant to do: kill. Killing is serious. It is not a game. It is not a toy. It is not “play.”

Mention gun control, and inevitably a flame war will start. But see, I have friends who are gun owners. They are reasonable, responsible, rational people. They are caring and compassionate people who undoubtedly shed their own tears over this tragedy. It is time for people like my friends, who I am certain would not be against reasonable restrictions to help stop the mentally ill from getting their hands on guns, to speak up, to help find the middle ground that we can all live with.

Mention mental illness, and people shudder or shrug. It’s not their problem, right? Tell that to the families of the 27 dead in Connecticut. And the families of the victims of Virginia Tech and Columbine and Aurora, Colorado. It is everyone’s problem. It is time to start talking about mental illness, to stop stigmatizing it. It is time to revamp the health care system so that people who need help get it before they reach the breaking point. Right now, it is too hard for families to get the help they need for loved ones who are suffering from mental illness. We need to change that. Until we do, we are doing a disservice not just to the victims of those people but to the people themselves who deserve a good life even with a mental illness.

I don’t have the answers. But we as a country need to have the hard conversations. There are other countries with many guns and fairly loose laws, like ours, who do not have these mass killings happening. Canada and Switzerland have both been mentioned to me as such. What are they doing that we are not? Is it cultural? And if it is, then it is time we start addressing our culture, too.

All I know for certain is this:

There are 27 people dead who should be alive.
There are 7 adults who died before their time.
There are 20 children who will never grow up.
There are 27 families who have wounds that will never heal.

We have lost more than we will ever know.
We have lost too much already.
We must change course before we lose everything that’s left.

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