Discovering the Power of Writing in Grief


By Zoe Kazmierski

Memory is a funny thing. Just when we’ve given up all hope on it, after losing our keys for the hundredth time, it shows its deep, trusty presence through the experience of something simple: a familiar smell, sound, or place. Or, as in my case, seeing the handwriting of a lost loved one.

In my experience of grieving my dad, who I lost at 22, memory and the act of writing have been inextricably entwined with my healing process. My own writing as an outlet, of course, but also reading artifacts written by him—old birthday cards, emails, AIM conversations, and random notes. My dad was a big fan of using Post-It notes to jot down reminders and document ideas to further explore. At any given time, his desk was covered with them. Opening a nearby window or even letting out a heavy sigh while seated around those scrupulously placed notes was, well, risky.

I kept a few of these Post-Its after he died, mementos that reminded me of his interests and the curiosity with which he approached the world. Recipe notes, a diagram representing the ideal ingredients to layer in a panini, musical groups to look into, and scientific ideas to research after watching a documentary. The assuredness with which he formed his letters, the architect-like precision of his diagrams, the efficient way he used all the space afforded to him on a 2 in. x 3 in. piece of paper—all of these tiny “tells” held so much hidden meaning to me in representing who he was.

I kept these Post-Its because I could not bear to throw away anything that he had left an indelible impression on. These tiny pieces of paper felt like sacred relics I had to preserve, physical evidence of his time on this earth. But I didn’t realize how much they would serve as triggers for remembering the intangible nuances of my dad’s personality. Instead, I focused on intense, desperate writing about all the memories I could conjure about him. All the silly jokes and banter, the meaningful moments of connection, the mannerisms and nicknames and impressions, the big fights, the stupid fights, memories from as early as I could remember and as recently as the last day I’d spent time with him. All the memories flooded out of me as I tried to capture everything on paper, desperately afraid that I would one day forget, or that the memories would dim over time.

This past fall I had the privilege of attending a wellness retreat at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. The fourth day was the one I had characterized as “tough stuff” after choosing sessions about diving into negativity, resilience, and grief. The last session had me curious, as it was called a Grief Writing Workshop. I had no idea what that meant but pictured myself seated at a picnic table silently weeping and writing about memories of my dad. For me, picturing vulnerable experiences like this—visiting my dad’s grave or my childhood hometown—gets me more emotional in the anticipation of it than in the actual moment of doing. So, in true form, I arrived at the workshop already in tears.

The instructor asked us to take a few minutes to describe our grief, stream of consciousness style. What does it look like? What does it sound, feel, taste like? Being given the task of describing grief as if it is a being, something that is a part of you but is not you, was interesting. I took the task quite literally and described what it looks like, what sensations it elicits, and how I deal with it as an entity in my life. But others took it in many different directions. Some wrote poems, some wrote about their pain and fear and love in the moment, some wrote reflections on the past and their regrets. It was a momentary exercise and yet extremely cathartic, not what I had imagined or done previously.

The combination of all these grief writing experiences has given me a richness in remembering what meaning my dad brought to my life, what he taught me, and what I want to pass on to my own children. One day I’ll look back at all that writing and smile at the memories that have lost their crispness. But what I have learned is that people you love deeply leave an imprint on your soul that cannot be erased. The love is what stays in immediately accessible memory—the feeling of loving and being loved by that person. And of course, the loss of that in my daily life is what makes the grief the sharpest to bear.

Zoe Kazmierski is a digital marketer, content strategist, and aspiring writer. She followed her English Literature studies by working in textbook publishing for many years, before setting her sights on the world of digital strategy and website optimization. She gravitates to historical fiction, is addicted to to-do lists, and owns the world's smallest tea set. Zoe lives in Boston's South Shore with her husband and two children.