Writing and healing: How bereavement became a book

“Fear almost consumed me during the writing. Now the fear is a memory, and my mother, a real person.”

by Ali de Groot

My mother battled cancer for fifteen years, but she died in a car accident when I was a teenager. To my memory, nobody talked much about it, and after a weird and basically embarrassing funeral (don’t teens get embarrassed about everything?) filled with yellow roses, chicken salad, and strangers, life went on for me. The remaining family members and I spun off in our different directions.

Twenty-five years later, with three kids under the age of five, I finally sat down to face my mother. The oldest child had asked me about her “missing” grandma, and I realized I’d never mentioned her. I didn’t know how to, and I was scared. Thinking about my mother was the same as thinking about her death and the silent void. This filled me with a dark and ineffable panic. But I knew I had to talk. I took a workshop in bereavement writing, and set off on one of the most important transformations of my life: writing about my mother.

I could not have foretold that I would be diving into a place of pain and turmoil, a place filled with memories and treasures locked in caverns guarded by the likes of Cerberus. The first writing exercise was to bring in a photograph of the deceased and create a caption or story. I didn’t even have a photograph of my mother. Any memories of her eluded me. This led me to opening boxes that had fossilized in my attic for two and half decades. Again, I was terrified. I found her photos, her journals, her letters, and I gradually, slowly, reluctantly started to read them. And then something happened. Something at once painful and magical. I started writing. And remembering. And writing more.

Two years later, I would have in my hands a 170-page book full of memories, photos, journal excerpts, letters, recipes, and reflections. I entitled the memoir Learning to Speak because among other things, my mother was a cancer survivor who’d had her larynx removed before I was born, and as a laryngectomee, she was forced to learn to speak in a completely different manner.

My children are all adults now and I’ve given each one a copy of the book. They show an interest in it from time to time, as do my close friends. I’ve lived to see my girls through their teens, and I’ve lived past the age my mother was when she died, both crucial milestones. But most importantly, I’ve healed my wounds. They’re just scars now. Fear almost consumed me during the writing. Now the fear is a memory, and my mother, a real person.

And I continue to learn to speak.

* * *