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Writing Through Grief: A Lifelong Writing Assignment

A few days after my older daughter’s fatal accident, I told a friend, “Well, God just handed me my writing assignment for the next 40 years.”

Maya was 19 when she died. We were extremely close. Yet even in the midst of the most intense physical and emotional pain I had ever felt, I knew I would write about Maya and our relationship. She was the love of my life.

Maya’s fall from a horse on a spring afternoon in 1992 changed everything – certainly for me and for her sister – but also for the trajectory of my writing career.

Even after two decades of living with her death, I still find her absence surprising. How is it  possible to have outlived her? A mother’s pain over the loss of her child is unspeakable. And yet I had to find words. Or words found me in the early months of grief, spilling out in wild prayers for God to send her back to me.

Words weren’t enough, though. The will to write – to actually shape my memories and my pain into a compelling story – to craft and revise and polish – that was the real work of writing my memoir Swimming with Maya, a book that took me ten years to create.

In the beginning writing was a kind of therapy. But when people ask if that’s how I healed my grief, I am quick to point out that I did much more than write. I sought out a compassionate and wonderful therapist who was a bereaved parent herself. I attended several grief support groups, including The Compassionate Friends, and I did spiritual work and body work to process my grief. I took long walks, spent time in nature, and surrounded myself with loving friends and family – you name it – I used every tool available.

I’m a great believer in writing as a way of healing. But to reach an audience, writing needs to become so much more than the writer’s personal grief journey. It must turn the corner and devote itself to the experience of the reader. “What does the reader need to know now?” I asked that question again and again as I worked on Swimming with Maya.

For me, writing is a building process. First, there are my journals where raw writing is produced. But I would no more think of publishing my journals than of building the frame for a house and calling it a home. The journals are only the boards and nails, the raw materials. Then a process of refining begins with a first draft on the computer, followed by feedback from my writing group, and then many rounds of revision.

At points during those years, I had to set the writing aside and just mourn for Maya. I was also raising my younger daughter Meghan at the same time, so she was an infinitely precious distraction from the work. It wasn’t until Meghan left home for college that I was able to fully devote myself to completing the book.

In the final months of preparing my manuscript, I literally rewrote the entire book. I shaped and sculpted and did what I think of as the finish work, creating something beautiful from the raw materials, always willing to go back at it again until it was the best I could make it.

While I sometimes felt frustrated by the process, in retrospect I am grateful that I found the strength to keep at it and not rush. I was able to draw on feedback and support from an amazing group of writers who were my first readers and who helped me grow as a writer and as a person.

Now, just holding my book in my hands brings me joy. In it, I relive my love for my daughters on every page. Maya’s spirit dances through the words. It is both a memorial to her and important testimony about how mothering shapes our lives – something we are only now beginning to hear more about.

Writing Swimming with Maya taught me that healing happens on many levels in our lives. If we are fortunate enough to be writers, we have the tools to build stories that can sustain us – and our readers – as we confront our losses.


About the Author:

Eleanor Vincent is the author of Swimming with Maya: A Mother’s Story (Capital Books, 2004).  She has won numerous awards for her work, including a Woman of Promise Award from the Feminist Writer’s Guild. She lives and works in Oakland, California. Visit her at http://www.eleanorvincent.com.

Have a question for Eleanor?  Leave it in the comments section of this page and she’ll post her reply!  You can also “meet,” Eleanor as she speaks as a Guest Expert at our upcoming Roundtable Event, Thursday September 8, 2011.  Sign up here to attend the f.ree live call or receive an email shortly following the event to listen in to the recording.


  1. Lisa Mae DeMasi

    I participated in the call with Eleanor last night and learned a great deal about the writing process in depicting a story of grief and about the craft itself.

    I was personally moved by Eleanor and the enormous amount of courage she had to write about such a heartwrenching loss – to have to relive every moment of grief over and over again…

    • Eleanor Vincent

      Lisa, I’m very glad the call was helpful. Writing takes courage! And writing about loss takes extra courage – and patience. Some days I had to take it one sentence at a time, so be gentle with yourself – and keep writing!

  2. Shirley

    This post helped me with one of the pieces of my childhood memoir that I hadn’t understood well enough before–how the death of my baby sister Mary Louise in 1954–and my mother’s lifelong grief–shaped all of our lives. She, too, used writing as therapy. I’m so glad she did.

    • Eleanor Vincent

      Shirley, the death of a child changes everything. I am very glad you have a window into your mother’s experience and the way it shaped your family. If you have access to her journals or other writings, that is a treasure. Good luck with your writing.

  3. Michele W.

    What a beautiful blog post. Very insightful. There’s a lot of loss and grief in my life story that I sometimes wonder if anyone really wants to hear all of the sadness. I hope to be able to tell my story one day as eloquently as you have shared here.

  4. Eleanor Vincent

    Thank you, Michele. Through writing (and living) we can temper our sadness (in the sense of tempering steel – making it stronger and more beautiful). Then, you have a great gift to share with your readers. Keep writing!

  5. Guuye

    What a moving post. As soon as I started reading it I knew exactly how you felt and what you went through. We lost our baby Billy in 2010 and I started writing a blog for him. Now I’m writing my memoir in memory of him. You are an inspiration and showed me it is possible. I will read your book. My Billy’s blog http://www.billybuuz.blogspot.com. Happy New Year and our angels will be in our hearts forever.

  6. Aine Greaney

    This is an extraordinary piece. I love what you write about shaping the narrative and how it only comes together in the final months. I write personal essays, and I always feel that they are my hardest and longest-to-completion work. Now that I’ve read this, I see that it’s that “shaping” process that’s hardest–and most delightful when it finally comes. Thanks for writing this.

    • Eleanor Vincent

      Thanks, Aine – I agree that the greatest challenge of personal narrative is shaping. For me, that’s often because I am still struggling toward greater awareness of how a given experience has shaped me. I can’t really shape the prose until I figure that out. But shaping the prose helps me figure it out. Go figure!


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