How Death and Dying Can Inform Our Writing
I received an email from a fellow writer last week who said she was touched by my article. I wrote it over 4 years ago when my sister, who had been working with me as an assistant, had passed suddenly.
I re-read the article and realized it was still appropos.
How Death and Dying Can Inform Our Writing
Recently, I was at a luncheon given by the National Association of University Women to honor my friend and colleague, Dr. Rosie Milligan, (www.milliganbooks.com) and one of the invited participants asked, “Where’s your sister?” (Apparently, she was used to seeing my sister Nancy at all the writer’s events that I attend.)
The table of women fell into an uncomfortable silence. I paused before answering. “You know Nancy passed.”
Just the uneasiness of the people at the table let me know that, as a culture, we don’t deal well with death.
In this culture, we haven’t been prepared to talk about grief. After the funeral, as the bereaved, you’re just supposed to pretend the death didn’t happen. If you talk about it too much, people tell you, “You’ve got to move on. Let it go.” Or, “Maybe you need to see a psychotherapist.”
Since that time, I found an old article (ironically, it was in one of Nancy’s old books), by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, later turned bestselling novelist, Anna Quindlen, from the N.Y. Times Service (1994), entitled “The oft-invisible burden of survivors.”
The article dealt with the silence that people expect you to have after death. Quindlen says, “More than sex, more than faith, even more than its usher death, grief is unspoken, publicly ignored except for those moments at the funeral that are over too quickly, or the conversations among the cognoscenti, those of us who recognize in one another a kindred chasm deep in the center of who we are.”
The article raised the question, What is grief? What is loss? It looked at what Quindlen called, “Loss as muse. Loss as character. Loss as Life.”
For me, personally, how do I cope with this new loss, which is making me look gapingly in the face of my own mortality? Particularly, since this was the death of the first of six siblings, but one with whom I had a kinship/friendship. How will death inform my writing?
Well, I’m going to break the silence. The truth is, just as there is never a right or perfect time to write a book, to start a business, or to start a family, there is never a right time or perfect time to get over grief. It has it own season.
Just as the loss of my parents has changed my life, thrusting me into the older generation, the loss of my older sister will shape the rest of my life. In fact, today, I was told that now I’m the family matriarch. As the oldest sister, that was Nancy’s role, so even that’s a subtle shift I will have to adjust to.
The lesson I learned from my sister’s life and her dying was this. By all means, set goals for the future, but also make sure you take time to enjoy the gift of the present. Learn to live in the moment. Learn to just ‘be.” Nancy was a connoisseur of living in the moment.
After all, the future is just some more present moments that haven’t arrived. If you can’t be happy now, you won’t be happy then.
It reminds me of people who are only happy when things are going extremely well. “Oh, God is blessing me,” they’ll chirp.
But how about when things are not going well? This is the time to lean on God. This is the time to be a testament to God’s power.
So what do you do when life puts you on notice? This is what happened to my sister Nancy when she was given a diagnosis of Stage IV Lung Cancer with metastasis on 1-28-08.
Right away, she made her decision to go home. She opted not to have chemo or radiation, as her girlfriend had undergone it two years earlier, lost all quality of life, and died, anyhow, in four months after a Stage III Lung Cancer diagnosis. Nancy chose to do hospice care at home with an alternative therapy.
On 2-11-08, Nancy made her transition from this life. However, she made those 14 days the most joyous she’d ever had. Everyone wanted to be around her because, in spite of being in pain and facing imminent death, she was upbeat, laughing, and positive. I even warned her against talking on the phone and laughing so much.
“Save your oxygen,” I fussed, not wanting to lose her. “Don’t talk so much.” Nancy ignored me and rightly so. Looking back, I was being selfish and stingy with the time she had left. She did the right thing. She called up every one, told them she loved them, and laughed as long as she was able.
“‘I’ve never been so happy in my life’,” my daughter Tamaira related that she told her. “I’ve been surrounded by my loved ones and that’s all I want.’” Tamaira added, “So how can I feel sorry for myself after seeing how Nancy is taking her situation?”
“Stop looking sad,” Nancy admonished me that Friday before she passed on Monday morning. “I was given a death sentence on Tuesday (eleven days earlier), and I’ve had eleven beautiful days.”
Over that two week period between Nancy’s diagnosis and her death, we made sure she had a houseful of loved ones, plenty of flowers, (which she meticulously re-arranged,) her favorite foods such as mustard and turnip greens and butterfly shrimp, her favorite movie “Dream Girls” playing around the clock, maid service, and plenty of massages and facials.
Nancy chose quality of life in two weeks over months of being an invalid, a vegetable, or a pin cushion. In her heart, she knew she was too far gone for chemo or radiation to add any quality of life or length to her remaining days.
When I told Nancy, “I hate to see you suffer like this,” she looked at me as if I was crazy.
“I’m not suffering like Jamina (her friend who died two years ago.) I have quality of life. I’m at home.” (For the last three months of her life, Jamina had lived strapped to a hospital bed, humongous tubes down her throat, and on a respirator in a cold, sterile hospital.)
Meantime, Nancy had closure in that half of our large family was able to make it to her bedside, and her daughter, Denise, made a return trip from Peoria, Illinois to Hawthorne, California, this time accompanied by her husband Herman, and her children, (Nancy’s grandbabies), Kendall and Austin.
That final weekend, when we frantically ran around Nancy’s apartment, trying to keep oxygen machines going, trying to fix them when they broke down, and, in truth, trying to beat the inevitable, I remarked to my older brother, Michael, “This is as real as life gets.”
In retrospect, those last two weeks were filled with sacred moments that taught me so much about real life–how short, how tenuous, how wonderful and how sad it can be, all at the same time.
In Nancy’s typical free-spirited style, the day after her death, we gave her a surprisingly beautiful home-going celebration in my living room.
After we released white balloons in the sky to her memory, Dr. Rosie Milligan told her weeping daughter, Denise, “You should feel proud. Your mom showed you how to live and how to die.”
Dr. Maxine E. Thompson is the owner of Black Butterfly Press, Maxine Thompson’s Literary Services, Thompson Literary Agency and www.maxineshow.com. She hosts Internet radio shows on www.artisfirst.com She hosted on Voiceamerica.com from 3/02 to 12/06 and she also hosted on her own show, www.maxineshow.com. She is the author of nine titles, The Ebony Tree, No Pockets in a Shroud, A Place Called Home, The Hush Hush Secrets of Writing Fiction That Sells, How to Publish, Market and Promote your Book Via Ebook Publishing, The Hush Hush Secrets of Creating a Life You Love, Anthology, SECRET LOVERS, (with novella, Second Chances,) Anthology, All in the Family, with novella Summer of Salvation. SECRET LOVERS made the Black Expression’s Book Club Bestselling list on 7-8-06 (after a 6-6-06 release date.)A new anthology, All in the Family, (Summer of Salvation) was published in April 2007l Another new anthology, Never Knew Love Like This Before,(her novella, Katrina Blues,) was published in June 2007. Never Knew Love has been a bestseller on Black Expression’s Book Club and on Amazon.com/Kindle many times. In 2009, her nonfiction book, Heal Thy Soul: 365 Days of Healing for Women of Color and her novel, Hostage of Lies will be released.
Hostage of Lies was voted a Best Book of 2009 by EDC Creations. A new novel, LA Blues, was published 7-1-11 to rave reviews. You can sign up for her free newsletter at http://www.maxinethompson.com Get a free report on how to write your book at http://www.WriteABookNow.com/cmd.php?af=677480
Filed under: Death and dying
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