When I wrote my first book, Just J, I was grieving the loss of my dad, who was taken by cancer in 2003. There’s an Irish thing about whatever you’re going through, someone else has it worse. With that in mind, I thought, if losing a parent in my early thirties could be so painful and discombobulating what must it be like for a young person?
Just J was written in the voice of a thirteen-year-old female protagonist, who had lost her mother to cancer. I tried to make her a boy at one point, but that was too close to the bone. And J wanted nothing to do with it, either.
Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Even from what I thought was a safe emotional distance, that I created with J, there were tears in the writer. We went through it together. When Carol Matas said in a Globe and Mail review that she, “felt with J”, I was happy to know we brought readers with us.
I didn’t think of it as therapy. I was just telling a story. J is someone who doesn’t filter her thoughts when expressing them. It was raw; and as CM Magazine called it, “unabashed emotional truth.”
J was a wonder at helping me get through that difficult time. Our deal was simple, I wouldn’t judge her, and she never judged me. She could express herself fully, and boy did she, as she was dealing with more than I had to.
When you lose someone you love, words can be like a sheet you throw over the ghost in the room to give it form. To see the shape of the loved one you so dearly miss. And the more you write, the more detailed they become. It is bittersweet, to say the least.
I later took love letters that Mom and Dad had written, during their long-distance engagement, between Ireland and Canada, and turned them into a book, for my mom, Such Little Time. I did it for me, as well. And for my family, especially my niece and nephews, so they would know their grandparents as their childhood memories faded. And, if I were to become a father, so my children could know them, too. Stories are as close to time travel and immortality as we have available to us.
When I was transcribing the letters, I got to know more about my mom and dad. I could feel the love they had for one another. Mom, I could still call and talk to. Dad was gone, but it felt like I was in the room with him as he wrote to Mom while he sitting at the kitchen table and listening to the “rain dripping off the roof”. It was the table we had our family meals
It’s hard to share what you are going through when you lose a loved one. Difficult to find the words to express what you’re feeling as you’re not sure yourself. You’re afraid no one wants to listen. Or that you’ll sound morose, or even unhinged; especially if the person you’re talking to hasn’t experienced it themselves.
The blank page listens without judgement. The experiences of other writers who put their pain on the page, comfort. Their words empathize without pity and can be a light to lead you out of a dark place. When you’re ready. Until you are, they’ll hold you and whisper, I’ve been there. You’re not alone. You’re not alone.