Healing Through Writing

Author: Artis Henderson

When my husband CW2 Miles Henderson was killed in Iraq in November 2006, I felt like I had lost everything. Miles was my best friend, my teammate, the reason I got up every morning. Without him, I couldn't imagine a future. Or any future I wanted to be part of. After months of a grief so blinding I could barely function, I realized with great sadness that my life was still going, even without Miles. I started to understand that I might grieve forever, but I would still need a reason to get out of bed. Writing became that reason.

Artis Henderson and spouse

My whole life I had wanted to be an author, and after Miles died I decided to do all I could to make that dream happen. Amazingly, my first book was published in January 2014, a memoir about Miles's death. I had to relive many tragic moments to write the book, moments like the notification and the briefing. When I was writing those scenes, I thought my heart would break all over again. Somehow I came out on the other side, and now that the book is finished I feel like a great weight has been lifted.

For the first time since Miles died, I can speak about his death without falling apart. I can finally say his name out loud. Research has shown that writing about traumatic events can be helpful in the healing process. I know it was for me. If you'd like to consider starting your own writing practice, here are some points to guide you. 

Write every day

Most writers agree that the hardest part about writing is getting started. There are so many more interesting things to do. You could walk the dog or sweep the deck or organize the fridge. There's an old joke that authors have the cleanest houses because they'll use any excuse not to write. Writing takes commitment. Try setting aside part of every day for your writing practice. It can be as little as fifteen minutes, just make sure the time is yours alone. Then put your bottom in a chair and a pen in your hand (or your fingers on the keyboard). It's easy to think you'll need the right equipment, like special software or a fancy desk with antique brass pulls or one of those high-tech writing chairs with optimal lumbar support. The truth is, you don't need much. Any paper will do; any pencil will work. Just commit to your practice.

Try writing exercises

Sometimes it's hard to know where to start. There are many great books filled with writing exercises, including the much-loved classic Writing Down the Bones. Here are two techniques I like to use. Begin with a free write. I give myself three notebook pages every morning. If you've read Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way you'll recognize these as her morning pages. 

The pages are just for you. You can do anything with them. You can brag. You can cuss. You can complain about your neighbors. These pages will never be seen by anyone. In fact, I like to burn mine when I'm done. Think of this as your private space for ranting, seething, and hurting. Everything that's aching inside of you has a place on the page. I'm always surprised at what comes out during my free write: grocery lists, forgotten moments, secret wishes. Many times I won't realize how much something is on my mind until I write it down.

When your three pages are finished, here is your next assignment: write one memory. Make it as vivid on the page as if you were watching it in the movie theater. Include dialogue and sensory details, like whether it was warm out or what the room smelled like. Sometimes it helps to write about the moments just before or after an important event. Write about the night before your notification. Or the first night after. Write about the first Christmas after your loved one came into your life. Write about his or her last. Include every single detail you remember.

Define your writing goals

Writing may feel overwhelming if you don't have a clear sense of what you hope to do with your words. You don't need to know right away, but over time you will develop a sense for what you want to do with your work. Perhaps it will be a record of your loved one for you alone. Or maybe you would like to share your writing with friends and family members. You may even decide that you would like to publish work. Knowing this will help you choose which stories to include in your daily assignment.

Join or create a writing group

Once you have a regular writing routine, you may want to consider joining or starting a writing group. Writing groups are excellent ways to improve your craft and to receive feedback on your work. Many groups meet once a month or every two weeks. Group members will submit a writing sample ahead of time or read for an allotted time during the meeting. The other members offer constructive thoughts on the piece. One of the most important benefits of a writing group is that it provides a venue for your story to be heard.

At the remembrance service during my first TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar everyone was invited to come to the microphone at the front of the room and say the name of his or her loved one out loud. I still remember how difficult it was to say Miles's name and how powerful it felt, too. In our loss and our grief, it's important to say our loved one's name-and for other people to hear it. A writing group will give you that opportunity. Look for groups at writing associations in your local community or on meetup.com.

Attend a writer’s conference

If you decide that you want to take your writing even further, then you may want to consider attending a writer's conference. Conferences are a great place to meet other writers and to hone your writing skills. There are writing conferences across the United States-and abroad-and chances are good there is one in your area. You will find that many attendees, especially memoir writers, are working through personal sorrow.

Reach out to other writers

Finally, remember that you are never alone in this process. Search for other writers who are struggling to translate their grief onto the page. You might exchange work or meet to do writing exercises together. Having even one person to share this experience with can be a great source of support. If you have questions about the process, don't be afraid to reach out to other writers. You can start with me. I'm always available at artis.henderson@gmail.com 

Artis HendersonBy Artis Henderson, Surviving spouse of CW2 Miles Henderson and author of Unremarried Widow: Artis Henderson is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The New York TimesReader's DigestFlorida Weekly, and the online literary journal Common Ties. She has an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a graduate degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. She lives in Florida. Her first book, Unremarried Widow, is available wherever books are sold.