Getting Grief Right in Writing

Long before I knew the truth of grief and its power, I wrote A Spark of Heavenly Fire. The story begins thirteen months after the death of Kate Cummings’ husband, and she is still haunted by her small unkindnesses during his long illness. It surprises me that I got that part right because so much of the grief journey has been a shock to me, including how much I regret my own small undkindnesses toward my life mate/soul mate. I didn’t do anything bad, just lacked generosity of spirit at times during his last year. If he had lived, of course, these lapses would have passed unnoticed in the commotion of daily life, but with his death, they loomed like vultures over my spirit, waiting to tear me to shreds. If I had known how close to death he was, I would have been more patient, more understanding of his dying ways, but I didn’t know. I’ve come to realize that we were under such stress those last years that both of us did the best we could in the untenable situation. Dying is an unpleasant business for both parties.

Here are a couple of excerpts from A Spark of Heavenly Fire that show Kate’s torment. I wasn’t as feisty as Kate. I didn’t kick furniture or slam doors (well, maybe just once), and I didn’t give in to my anger until after he was dead, but otherwise, these passages show how much we bereft regret the small things we did:

Kate hauled herself upright and groped for her eyeglasses. After sitting on the edge of the bed for a moment, gathering her strength, she dressed and wandered through the house. She hesitated by the closed door of the second bedroom where her husband had lived during the last years of his protracted illness, touched the knob with her fingertips. Yanked her hand away.

This is ridiculous. Joe’s been gone for thirteen months.

Taking a deep breath, she grasped the knob, but could not force herself to turn it. She rested her forehead on the door for a minute, wondering if she’d ever be able to face the ghosts of sorrow and regret locked inside, then squared her shoulders and headed for the front closet to grab a coat and hat.

[Later in the book, Kate explains this inability to open the door to her new friend, journalist Greg Pullman.]

“A little over a year ago, during one of Joe’s rare remissions,” Kate said. “I mentioned we were coming up on our fifteenth wedding anniversary. When he ignored me, I asked, ‘Would it kill you to be nice to me once in a while?’

“He didn’t answer.

“I went out for a walk. When I returned, he was gone.”

“Dead?” Greg asked.

“No. Not then. He’d taken our car, an old Volvo, and left. I didn’t know he felt strong enough to drive. He could barely walk and had a hard time gripping so much as a glass of water.

“When the state patrol called to tell me Joe had been in an accident, that he’d driven off a cliff in the mountains and had died instantly, I wasn’t surprised. It did surprise me when they ruled it an accident. It seemed so obvious to me he’d taken his own life that I was sure everyone else could see it, too.”

Kate gave an unamused laugh. “I never did buy another car.”

Greg looked at her, a frown wrinkling his brow. “I don’t see that you did anything shameful.”

Kate toyed with her empty cup. “I’m not proud of what I said, and I hate knowing those were the last words I ever spoke to my husband, but I don’t think it had anything to do with his suicide. I doubt he even heard me.

“About two weeks after the funeral, I decided to clean Joe’s room. I didn’t feel up to sorting out his things, but I thought I should dust and vacuum in there. I cracked opened the door, as if expecting Joe, or at least his spirit, to inhabit the room. I stepped inside, but seconds later I scrambled out again and slammed the door.

“Memories of all the shameful, petty, inconsiderate things I had done over the years haunted the room, and I couldn’t bear to face my own mean spirit. Too many times I snapped at him or purposely waited a few minutes before going to see what he wanted when he called out. Other times I felt so angry at the way life had treated us, I stomped around the house, slamming doors and kicking furniture. Usually, though, I pounded my pillow, or cried. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I cried, wishing I had a normal life with healthy children to take care of instead of an uncommunicative and disabled man. Sometimes I even hated him for what he had become, as if he chose to get sick. Can you believe that?”

She didn’t pause for a response, but hurried on, wanting to get it all out. “Worst of all, I realized I was not a strong woman who had shouldered her burden with courage, but a weak woman who lacked generosity of spirit.”

Greg reached across the table and put a hand over hers. “We are a sad pair, aren’t we?”

She gave him a wistful smile.

A full minute went by without either of them speaking, then she asked, “Would you like some more hot chocolate?”