Welcome to Helen Victoria Anderson today. Her guest blog is about writing as therapy and how it has helped her to come to terms with her young daughter’s death. Thanks for coming, Helen, and for sharing this lovely piece of writing with us.
A Way Back
I have been a firm believer in the therapeutic potential of writing since I started scribbling my way through a long, major depression when my children were younger. It started out as pouring my guts onto the page, which could get quite messy. Then, I was encouraged by mental health staff to attend Adult Education classes, and subsequently I went back to university to study for a Masters in Creative Writing. It is the best thing I have ever done: more than once, writing has saved me from the darkness which creeps up on me.
In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King states “Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life” and I totally agree (I’m sure Stephen King will be relieved to hear that.) Aside from that initial spilling of emotions – resulting in puddles of stuff which may or may not be suitable for sharing – there is the satisfaction of shaping initial ideas into crafted pieces which will connect with fellow human beings. For me, until recently, these pieces had largely taken the form of poetry and literary fiction with autobiographical seeds. (No matter how much we might dress things up, deliberately or subconsciously, I think all writing ultimately comes from our own experiences of the world).
In the beginning, I wrote about depression and struggles with not feeling good enough as a mother. I wrote some frivolous, jokey pieces from time to time but I really felt at my most fulfilled when I was sinking my teeth into subject-matter like mid-life crises and looming empty nests. Usually, I cowered behind fictional characters or narrative personae, because even that felt scary and exposing enough. But in a good way.
At university, it was encouraged – in a safe, holding environment – to delve into painful experiences which came up. As well as being intensely cathartic on a personal level, this gave me plenty of compelling material to transform into powerful poetry and stories. I gained confidence. Writing made me feel more ‘myself’.
Three years ago, a terrible tragedy struck our family and I once again turned to the page, in order to survive. When my fourteen year old daughter, Georgina, was diagnosed with Stage Four liver cancer in June 2013, I poured my awful fears and unspeakable feelings into my journal. I scrawled in notebooks, in between meetings with doctors and watching rubbish telly with Georgina at her hospital bedside. I wrote often, as the catastrophe of Georgina’s terminal diagnosis unfolded. And when she died less than four months after they found her tumours, I wrote about my grief and all the things I wanted to remember about her.
As I felt my way through the first months after her death, I charted my journey by flinging down verbal crumbs and crusts (whole loaves, even) like some kind of crazed, writerly Hansel and Gretel. Sometimes, my words were raw and agonised: sometimes, more reflective. Always, the discipline of writing helped me slow down and breathe and re-order things. (I was going to write ‘make sense of things’ but I am not sure there can ever be any sense to a beautiful, talented young girl being snatched away).
I am frequently asked how I am managing to cope with this unthinkable loss. In response, I have published those diaries. They are largely unchanged from the original entries, except for a few minor tweaks to respect other’s privacy. ‘Piece by Piece: Remembering Georgina: A Mother’s Memoir’ is an unflinching account of a shattering loss.
This book is very much my story as Georgina’s mother. Telling it felt essential. Not only have I found it empowering to recount my experiences, but many readers have contacted me to say that the book has given them insight into coping with adversity and supporting bereaved loved-ones. I take some comfort from knowing that others have related to my writing, and that, even in some small way, I may have made people in distress feel less alone.
It is not all doom and gloom for the reader: my book is shot through with the dark humour which serves me reasonably well as a coping strategy. ‘Piece by Piece: Remembering Georgina: A Mother’s Memoir’ is my testament to my young daughter’s courage. It is also a reflection on the power of community and the amazing strength of the human spirit in difficult times.
But I have aimed to be honest about the bad bits and the even worse bits of this worst kind of bereavement. I have left in details that perhaps don’t show me in the most favourable of light, and where I have possibly come across as ever-so- slightly unhinged. I have made myself vulnerable, but this has been strangely liberating.
I started off writing these journal entries just for myself, but there is something sustaining about making profound connections via the printed word. I have sought to be brutally honest, in the hope that readers will see their own truths reflected in mine. It was particularly important to me to give my own version of events because, as Georgina was a talented singer-songwriter, my daughter’s illness and death were widely reported in the media. I am saying, loud and clear – in black and white – “This is what happened to me. This is my story, and writing it is helping me find my way through.”
Helen Victoria Anderson is a writer based in the North East of England. She has an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction) from Teesside University. Helen won First Prize in the Ink Tears Flash Fiction Contest 2015 and the Bridgwater Homestart Short Story Competition 2013. Her poetry and short stories have been published in a number of literary magazines and she is working on a novel. Helen is married, with a grown-up son and a loopy labrador.
Piece by Piece: Remembering Georgina: A Mother’s Memoir (Slipway Press, 2015) is available from Amazon as an e-book and paperback. You can buy a copy here.