Recently, a member of my writer’s group died.
It was unexpected, and the three of us who remain don’t know very much about it. He lived alone, and another member raised the alarm when he didn’t respond to the emails about an upcoming meeting in his usual timely fashion. What followed was a week of this member attempting to communicate with him through every available channel. Because we meet by Skype, all of us were hundreds of miles away. We couldn’t go to his house and check on him. We asked one of his local friends if he could follow up but didn’t hear back. Finally, the member doing the legwork on this contacted the police department in his city. When she had sufficiently proved her personal relationship with him, they told her he had “died of natural causes.”
That is all that we know, as well as a rough timeframe of his passing based on when he last emailed. Because of this, it’s been very difficult for me to process.
I’ve found in the past that it is often hardest to grieve those who we don’t see on a regular basis. I grieve deceased pets the moment I walk into my house and feel the space of their absence. Grieving humans that do not live with us is more complicated. Although I talked to him almost every month for the past seventeen years or so, there’s a part of me that won’t truly understand that he’s gone until that first meeting without him.
We have not held that meeting. We are in a sort of shock-grief-limbo. I assume all of us know we will eventually resume, but I think it still feels too painful.
A few nights ago, I finished a freelance project ahead of deadline after the kids were in bed. So as I was about to fall asleep, I planned my upcoming week in my head. I had babysitting scheduled for Friday morning, which I thought I would need to use for the freelance assignment. With that time freed up, I considered using my babysitting hours to continue work on my short story in progress.
Immediately, I felt an overwhelming resistance. Not the run-of-the-mill resistance all writers feel when we sit down in front of a blank page. The kind that results in one more cup of tea or one more tidying up of the desk before we can motivate ourselves to tackle the task at hand. This was an ache-in-my-gut, how-could-I-possibly-work-on-that-project, kind of feeling. And I knew that was a signal of where this grief process was going to play itself out. Not in the context of my day-to-day life, which has remained unaffected by my friend’s death. I still order groceries, load the dishwasher, take my kids outside, read during the baby’s nap, monitor my health, watch Netflix with my husband. Post-kids, I’ve had to squeeze writing time into nooks and crannies, and so, that’s where my grief has been stuffed as well. I know I still need to write and, what’s more, that my friend would WANT me, want all of us, to write. If anything, his death should remind us that the only time we have to pursue what’s important to us is right now.
But the way forward is still unclear to me.
Writing is often referred to as a “solitary pursuit,” but that is not exactly true. Yes, we are usually alone — need to be alone — in those moments when we are actually transmuting our thoughts into written language. But many of us write as a way of eventually forging connections, or find that forging connections along the way makes the journey more sane and infinitely more rewarding.
The bond between the members of a writer’s group is not one that would necessarily be easily understood by those outside it. Because of this, I am neither surprised nor offended that my friend’s next-of-kin did not think to notify us of his death. The members of the group are at different points in our life journeys; we do not share our day-to-day activities or concerns with one another. We have not chosen to be life partners and initially forged our relationship for “professional” and not personal reasons.
There is a part of me, a deep and essential part of me, that these three — now only two — people know more intimately than anyone else in my life. To share your writing with another, especially in its formative stages, requires a great deal of vulnerability. And from that vulnerability comes a trust that rivals the trust I have in my husband, my best friend, or my mom. Because time and again, they have proved themselves worthy to be allowed into my inner landscape, the world of my mind that is shared only sporadically with those I share my “real life” with.
Losing one of the few people who I consistently trusted with that part of myself is no small thing. And grieving it is no small task, especially when it is tied up so closely with the very thing I have turned to throughout my life to process everything else. But it’s the only way forward.
Like with any death, I have regrets. Regrets about not getting around to answering emails or not staying on a call just a little bit longer. Regrets about not telling him how much certain comments or conversations have stayed with me through the years and how valuable his feedback was. But our writing group has developed a habit of saying thanks at the exchange of each submission. The reviewer often says thanks to the writer, as in, “Thank you for trusting me with this.” And the writer always says thanks to the reviewers for giving significant time and thought to their piece.
I am so grateful to this practice — which I did not start — for covering what most needed to be said before this relationship ended.