The power of memoir-writing in the wake of suicide bereavement - Hollie's story
After losing her father to suicide, Hollie used storytelling to make sense of her grief and to manage her own anxiety disorder. Though writing and publishing her memoir was far from cathartic, it was a way of reconstructing her trauma and to keep her father alive.
As a kid, I was always writing stories and poems. My fantasist impulse didn’t dissipate as I grew older, and is tied up with the anxiety disorder that developed alongside it. Anxiety, after all, is the expression of the catastrophist and the best catastrophes are rustled up from the leanest ingredients. With just the right words, a nagging discomfort can escalate into an exquisite terror.
Then one day it happened, the thing I’d only ever imagined as a worst-case scenario. My dad, long suffering with his own internal unease, died by suicide.
People sent flowers. Knowing I was in no state to remember who sent what, I felt I had to write it down. One of Dad’s colleagues called to tell me funny stories of after-work drinks and all the times Dad had helped him out over the years. In those words, he was startlingly alive. I hung up and wrote down everything I could recall. I knew my higher faculties were overloaded with grief-shock and couldn't be relied upon to retain these precious things for later.
No state of mind is forever.
Encouraged by Beckie, my suicide bereavement counsellor at Rethink Mental Illness, I kept writing. I’d written in a diary every day from the age of eleven until I went to university, and slipped back into the habit like an old pair of shoes. I called it the Dead Dad Diary, where I recorded every knotted thread of admin that needed doing and every little story that trickled out between condolences. My own lapsed memories, suddenly available to me; my state of mind, a propulsive unravelling that never seemed like it would abate. Anger. Sorrow. Boredom. Grief’s party guests.
I tried to perform my duties as a capable daughter, fabricating a business-as-usual that was obviously preposterous to everyone but me. Unsurprisingly, my anxiety skyrocketed and more complex symptoms developed: dissociation, perceptual disturbance, intrusive thoughts. Some days, the panic attacks incapacitated me completely. Reading back now, it’s hard to recognise myself. How I got from that barely legible morass of automatic writing into a soon-to-be published book, I couldn’t tell you. I know I was busy for eighteen months but I can’t recall the period all that well. It seems magical, unhitched from time. Perhaps because I was writing during a pandemic that upended every facet of ‘normal.’ Or perhaps because the project wasn’t strictly work, it was medicine.
Bereavement has to become a story, if we are ever to live with it.
Contrary to popular belief, writing about my dad’s suicide was in no way cathartic. I found very little catharsis in grief, just a tortuous procession of stops and starts. But with the funeral and estate settling out of the way, writing gifted me something special: momentum. I had application, something to do with my anxious hands and skittering mind.
The power of storytelling is something I cover in 'The Bleeding Tree: A Pathway Through Grief Guided by Forests, Folk Tales and the Ritual Year’. Oral traditions keep our dead alive, a chronicling that is the oldest and perhaps most intimate form of memorial. Trauma has to become narrativised before it can move to the side of the brain that holds memory. Bereavement has to become a story, if we are ever to live with it.
Somewhere in those pages is my Dad, briefly and vitally animate by the telling.
If you’re prone to anxious rumination, I’d urge you to try writing without direction. Working feelings out on the page can help identify those repeating patterns of thought and help us to reconcile them. In episodes of acute anxiety, perspective is near impossible, but simply being able to refer back can show you how far you’ve come. No state of mind is forever.
In the weeks after he died, it felt outrageous and absurd that life was somehow continuing; one day coming after the next. Capturing each passing day in a diary forced my brain to comprehend that continuation was not only possible, but inevitable. Now, whenever I feel myself spiralling, the mere fact of that notebook’s existence is proof that even in the wake of genuine catastrophe, everything does not cease to be. Chapters ahead may throw up more panic attacks, but those pages will and do always turn. And somewhere in those pages is my Dad, briefly and vitally animate by the telling.
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