In the midst of fresh grief, or in the memory of grief, writing can be a way to move inward, and it can also be a way to come up for air.
Grief informs many memoirs, whether the writer is grieving the loss of a loved one, or the loss of health, or a lost innocence or a lost opportunity. In my current memoir project, the central grief is the loss of my mother, or, more accurately, the loss of the opportunity to meet my mother. We were separated by adoption when I was an infant, and she passed away just a year before I was able to find my family.
This past spring, the goal I set for myself was to finish a first-but-coherent draft of my memoir of reuniting with my birth family. It took an extra month for me to finish that draft, and the rest of the summer to revise it. It’s a bit over 80,000 words, most of which has been published as stand-alone essays.
My biggest challenge in combining these essays has been to locate the narrative arcs between the conflicts and the resolutions. Today, while working on revisions, I began to see the arc of my grief for my mother, which first cut into me when I learned I was adopted, and has never really ended.
Grief has an arc, but like most complex emotions, it often has more than one arc, and sometimes, one arc repeats in a story, over and over again. In writing about my family and how I fit with them, I learned that as each of my five brothers passed away, I relived all the regrets I had about not searching for my mother before she died. Those regrets, which began with my inaction or procrastination, sometimes resolved when I took a positive action. Sometimes they resolved in acceptance. And sometimes, a regret stuck, and didn’t resolve. These are all possible arcs.
But the main arc of my grief is my search for a ghost-woman who held me as a secret and who died young. I’ve found bits of her in the gestures and expressions I share with my siblings, in my own laughter, which they say mirrors hers, in the physical characteristics I see repeated in her grandchildren, and in our family’s legacy of addiction.
Will I ever find enough pieces of her to feel my search is complete? Probably not. I think this searching arc will keep repeating. Whenever I feel that I’ve found her, she slips away. Whenever I accept that we’ll never meet, I find myself denying that I ever missed her.
Maybe grief is an emotion that resists a narrative arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I’m interested in your thoughts.
2 thoughts on “Writing Memoir: The Arc of Grief”
I would first like to say that I love your writing style. It’s very comforting and extremely well written.
I would also like to send my condolences to you. I can’t imagine how hard this must be, it seems as if it’s a vicious cycle that you just keep repeating. I can only hope that with him, your wounds will heal. However, all wounds do leave a scar. You seem to be a strong woman though. And although I am a stranger, I would like to say that I personally don’t have many friends and even less family… so if you need someone to talk to or just an ear that will listen, I am here.
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I meant with time, your wounds will heal*