Grief and Writing

When there are no words.

Grief and Writing

In January, I posted a tongue-in-cheek column called “Tanking My Productivity,” where I made excuses for not starting the New Year off with a bang, but more of a whimper. I blamed kittens for part of my slow start. I didn’t know how right I was.

We adopted three kittens (Poa, Duma, and Moshi), all from different litters. The first one died within a month from Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP). FIP is a relatively rare condition that is always fatal. Until Poa came down with it, I’d never even heard of it. We’d barely gotten to know him before he passed, though we tried to do right by him.

FIP is basically an aberrant reaction to coronavirus, which is rather common among cats. Most cats get mild flu-like symptoms. But in a minority, their immune systems don’t react well to the coronavirus, and it becomes FIP. Poa managed to pass coronavirus to our other two kittens before he died. It’s highly contagious, so it wasn’t too surprising.

What came as a shock was when, five months later, Duma had to be put to sleep after she was diagnosed with FIP. While we hadn’t had much time to get to know Poa, Duma was my constant companion.

I was devastated. We all were. 

Usually when I’m upset, whether it’s with family, community, or the world, I turn to writing. The harder the times, the more I write, and I tend toward more comedic pieces. But when Duma passed, I cried. For weeks.

It hasn’t helped that Moshi may or may not get FIP. There’s no way to predict. We’re playing a long game of “wait and see.” It’s hard to be in a constant state of limbo. We have to act as if everything will be okay, because what else can we do?

I didn’t write for six weeks after Duma died. That has to be a record for me. For the first four, I tried to write every day. I’d sit at my desk and tell myself that I just needed to lay down some tracks — nothing fancy, just keep the words moving. But there weren’t any words.

Ever watch a blinking cursor on a blank page? Yeah, it’s upsetting. I didn’t have the words. I was just…sad. And it caught me off-guard because I’ve always owned pets. I love animals and enjoy sharing space with them. I’ve had to put numerous animals down over the years and while I’ve always felt sad, I never stopped writing. If anything, I’d take a day or two and then throw myself into a project.

But this time I couldn’t. I tried for four weeks. Each day, guilt sat heavier on my shoulders. I had deadlines to meet and stories to tell. Why couldn’t I just get the damn words on the page?

After a month passed, I finally acknowledged that between my grief and my guilt at not writing, I was simply not taking care of myself. I was sad, exhausted, and anxious. I’ve got kids, so I’m used to being exhausted, but I’m rarely sad and not overly anxious by nature. That’s why it took me so long to figure out that I was sliding toward depression.

In the end, I gave myself permission to take a writing hiatus. I made sure that I didn’t leave anyone in the lurch, but I pushed back deadlines and rearranged my writing schedule. I took two weeks completely off. I read lots of books, ate comfort food, and loved on Moshi and my family.

It worked.

At the end of two weeks, I approached my computer like it might bite, and I sat down to put my first few words on the page. I think it was something like 500. But I did it, and they were good. The next day, I wrote almost 4,000. For the next three days after that, I wrote a minimum of 3,000 words a day. I even had an 8,000-word day.

The words were back. It wasn’t always easy; some days, I definitely struggled. But it felt more normal. And little by little, the crushing weight sitting on my chest — from grief, guilt, and frustration that I couldn’t use my go-to distraction of choice — lifted. I finished a novel, started another. I found the words and the joy again.

In the end, it made me much more cognizant of how my emotional life could impact my writing life. I’ve always been sympathetic to writers who’ve had to take time off for personal reasons, and I wasn’t so conceited as to think I wouldn’t be in that position at some point. I just hadn’t expected it when it struck.

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