Writing Through Grief

February 24, 2012 began like any other Friday: Up at 5 am to walk and feed the dogs, make breakfast, see my husband off to work. Then to my second floor office to work on the novel I’d begun  writing two weeks earlier. At around two that  afternoon, the phone rang and the call changed everything. My mother, her voice thick with tears, told me my younger brother–computer whiz,, scuba diver, husband, father, and grandfather— had cancer. My first words were “How bad is it?”

Dean at age 3 in his favorite cowboy hat

Mom handed the phone to my sister. “It’s terminal,” Kate said. “Lungs,  kidneys, and liver all in stage four. He has two  months, maybe three.”

She went on talking but I was too numb to hear much else before I went to pieces. That weekend, my family, scattered over Texas and Tennessee went into survival mode. Every day brought tearful phone calls, anxious progress reports, tentative discussions about where Dean should be laid to rest.  In March, he told his wife he wanted to make one last trip home to see Mom. When he got there he was too weak to talk much, but  he called me and we had a brief chat before he lapsed into confusion. That was to be our last conversation. I got so sick I required medical care and several tests to rule out serious problems of my own.  And my work ground to a halt. I couldn’t think, couldn’t force myself to the computer every morning. Mostly I cried and slept and railed at God. Why take my brother now, just weeks after he had sold his business and retired to a home near his grandchildren? Why take such a gentle man who loved his family and  music and wacky comedies? It wasn’t fair.

April 10, 2012:  5:30 am: I was literally on my way out the door headed for the airport, scheduled to have dinner with my publisher’s publicity director,  speak and sign books at a five day convention in Chicago when Mom called. Dean had slipped away just an hour earlier. For him, the grief and pain were over. For us, it was just beginning. The long sad drive home to east Texas where he would be laid to rest next to Daddy, the visitation at the funeral home, the service itself all passed in a blur. On the way home, I kept thinking Now. Now I must get back to writing.

It didn’t happen. By the end of April, I panicked. An 85,000 word novel demanded to be written and I could think of nothing but what we had lost. At about that time, my editor sent a copy of a new book. Grieving God’s Way by my friend Margaret Brownley gave me permission to grieve. To be gentle with myself. To be angry at God. All of those behaviors that I thought were a sign of weakness and self indulgence in fact were the beginnings of healing. Another book that helped me: I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye by Brook Noel and Pamela Blair.  The authors reminded me that grief can’t be denied, nor can it be hurried.

One of the things that helped me resume writing was doing things to honor my brother. I have a bracelet filled with charms that commemorate important milestones in my life. So I bought my brother’s birthstone and added it to the bracelet.  I posted photos of him on Facebook. And when this new novel  is published next year, it will be dedicated to him–my first friend, my first playmate.

Writing through grief has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I know that I’m not unique.Many others have faced this same situation. Here are strategies that got me through it:

I wrote something every day, often only a few sentences. I gave myself permission to stop when I needed to.

On days when even the thought of opening the file seemed too difficult, I focused on my research. Reading about  yellow fever epidemics or rice milling in the 19th century allowed me a momentary escape from grief.

I kept a journal.

I tried to do small acts of kindness for others. Thinking about others kept me from focusing so intently on  my own loss.

In another week or two the majority of the writing on the novel tentatively titled ALL THAT IS GOLD will be finished. I know my brother would be proud of me.



14 thoughts on “Writing Through Grief

  1. Deborah Raney

    I lost a younger sister in a car accident when she was a 21-year-old newlywed, and 3 years ago, my brother’s wife died at 47 after a 5-year battle with cancer. It’s very difficult to lose a sibling, especially a younger one. I’m so sorry for your loss, and appreciate your suggestions. Thanks, Dorothy.

    1. dorothy Post author


      I so appreciate your sharing your own losses and your kindness. Everyone grieves differently but I hope at least some of the things that are helping me might be helpful to others in the same situation. See you soon, Dorothy

  2. LaShaunda

    Dorothy thank you for sharing your experience. My mother passed last year and I wrote a series on my blog about dealing with the grief. I was grateful I wasn’t published because there were days the words would not come. This summer my sister died and my cousin and I’m learning to write through the grief. It’s hard but I want to finish the book and I can’t not writing.

    I would look up the books you read. No one talks about dealing with grief, so you don’t know how you feel is right or wrong. There also isn’t a time limit on it. Just as I was dealing with my mother’s one year anniversary, my sister died. The grief started all over again. Thank God for being in my life. I know I’ve hung until him on many occasions.

    Many blessings to you.

  3. Patti Jo

    Thank you for sharing this post–and your heart–with readers. I’m so sorry about the loss of your brother, and will keep you in my prayers as you continue healing from his death. May our Lord give you comfort, strength, and peace in the days ahead. ~ I’m looking forward to reading your work. Blessings, Patti Jo

    1. dorothy Post author

      All hugs gratefully accepted! The grieving process is different for everyone, but one of the things that has comforted me is telling Dean’s story and talking about his life. When the diagnosis came in he never once said, “why me?” Or “There must be a mistake.” His first concern was for my mother and for the grief it caused his family. He lived each day as fully as he could.

  4. Rebecca DeMarino

    I know this must have been difficult to write, but I thank you for sharing your personal journey through grief. I know it’s one that is never over, but you have mentioned some concrete things we can all do when faced with loss. I’ve read Margaret Brownley’s book on grieving, too, and found it so comforting. Thank you for adding your personal experience. I know God is healing you with time and filling it with meaningful things to do is what keeps you going. I love the picture of your brother as a little boy. Take care.

    1. dorothy Post author

      Hi rebecca, thanks for chiming in. Grief is a roller coaster, and I am counting on there coming a day in which I will have more ups than downs. The photo of Dean is one of my favorites, too. He was two years younger than I, and we had great times as children. Dorothy

  5. Audrey Grant

    Dorothy, First of all let me say how very sorry I am for your loss! This has been a very, very hard two years in my family and I have lost so many people I was starting to think I couldn’t take any more! I live in Alaska and my immediate family of Missionaries and Preachers are scattered all over the USA and in and out of other countries.
    In the last two years on my Mom’s side two of her brother’s, my Uncles’, one of my Aunts and two cousins have died. On my Dad’s side his brother died a long painful death from Cancer. I have had Major surgery and been on bed rest for 3 1/2 years and so have been unable to even visit my family. Much less go back and forth for funerals and help with nursing duties. Then a month ago my 18 yr old niece was killed in a car wreck! Again I was stuck. All I could do was cry and pray and ask God why, which I know He doesn’t answer…but as humans we ask when we are in pain anyway.
    I hope I am not making your pain worse by talking about all of this. If I am I am very sorry! I am a new Book Blogger and had won a book written by Phoebe Leggitt, called “It’s My Time to Grieve” about when her son died. But when it got here I couldn’t read it and put it on the shelf…which I never do! But the day of my niece’s funeral in TN. while I was stuck in the bed here in Alaska, God pulled my heart and eyes to that book and I read it in one afternoon.
    I wrote an honest review from my heart about how much I needed the book at that moment and God had had it there waiting for me.
    I have been in limbo for years with my health wondering what I could do, what God wanted me to do. After that review, emails and messages started flooding in and people started asking me questions that without God they should not have known about me and my past…abuse, divorce, cancer twice, 13 surgeries…the list goes on. I have had so many people ask me to write MY story in a book that it has become very clear that it is God’s direction, even though I don’t know the first thing about writing, especially a BOOK!! And the thoughts of pouring my pain and details of what I have lived through out on a page for the world to read both scares the life out of me and thrills me to my core! I have to be honest. I have no IDEA why I feel led to tell you this, other than that we have both suffered great loss this last year and it makes me feel close to you in some way and I pray in some small way my story of God’s direction (at least the glimmers there of) in my life might be a small encouragement to you today.
    Always Because of Jesus,
    Audrey Grant

    1. dorothy Post author


      thank you so much for your heartfelt comment here. I am so sorry for all the losses in your life, and I pray you will find peace and comfort.

      There are literally hundreds of organizations, workshops, conferences, and online courses that can teach you what you need to know about writing. I wish you improved health and all good luck with your book. Blessings, Dorothy

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