On a cool November morning in the small town of Mountain View, Calif., Sarah Neustadter’s beloved boyfriend, John—the man she was going to marry—threw himself in front of an oncoming train. Just days prior, John had turned 36.
The devastation Neustadter felt was so deep that she, too, wanted to die.
“The pain of missing him was unbearable. The thought of living the rest of my life, years upon years, without him filled me with hopelessness and despair,” Neustadter writes in her new book Love You Like the Sky: Surviving the Suicide of a Beloved.
Eight months after John died, Neustadter started sending emails to his old Yahoo address, because “communicating with John was truly the only thing I wanted to do at that time,” she said. It gave her a way to keep the conversation alive.
“And it felt symbolic and ritualistic to send an actual letter out somewhere into the unknown,” Neustadter said.
Neustadter also used writing to make sense of John’s suicide—why did he turn to suicide? what signs did she miss? She wrote down everything about John that she could remember.
Writing gave Neustadter “some sense of purpose.” She wanted to write the book she wished she’d had: “a book about a young woman, effectively widowed at 29, struggling to make sense of the loss of her soul mate and why he took his life. There were a lot of parts to this, and I had a lot of questions. None of the books on grief that I found helped me with understanding how to navigate my loss.”
“If I could offer other women (or men) like myself a book that made them feel less alone and helped them navigate through traumatic grief, then maybe, just maybe, it would make my experience of John’s death worthwhile in some way.”
Today, Neustadter, Ph.D, is a clinical and transpersonal psychologist living in Los Angeles and specializes in working with suicide survivors.
Writing was also a critical coping tool for Tyra Manning, whose young husband was killed in Vietnam when his plane was shot down over Laos.
As she explained, “When I was told of his death, I channeled words on a page to scream in anguish over his willingness to place himself in harm’s way in support of the country he loved, while immediately apologizing to his wayward spirit for my unbridled anger. I laid out my feelings on the page as honestly, coarsely, and with heartfelt longing as I was able. The irony was that after I’d plastered my pain in endless run-on sentences that made sense to nobody but me, I was finally able to calm down and fall into the temporary respite of slumber.”
Later, Manning’s therapist suggested she keep writing, and she’s continued doing so throughout her life. Manning is the author of the memoir Where the Water Meets the Sand, and the forthcoming book Your Turn: Ways to Celebrate Life Through Storytelling.
“Writing throughout the years has been a bit like hiking across the landscape of my own life, carrying a heavy backpack filled with fresh hindsight mixed with poignant feelings from the past,” Manning said.
If you, too, are struggling with grief—whether recent and raw, or decades-old—here’s how to use writing to help you cope:
- Communicate directly with the person. Like Neustadter did, you could send emails to your loved one. You can write letters. You can write a short daily poem addressed to them—maybe in a writing style they used to love (e.g., haiku). Maybe you’d rather not use writing at all: Instead, you paint your grief, or take daily photos of things your loved one would’ve treasured. Maybe you print out those photos, and create a book dedicated to them.
- Start keeping a grief journal. “Don’t hold anything back,” Neustadter said. Write down your bone-deep sadness. Write your rage. Write your confusion. Manning writes daily about whatever comes to mind. “When I am hurting because of a loss, I simply write out how I feel, my anger, sadness, fury at times, and guilt for being angry at someone I’ve loved and lost.
- Use prompts. Sometimes, while we’re grieving, we feel numb. Or we’re disconnected from our emotions simply because many of us are scared of our feelings, and of delving too deep. Neustadter suggested exploring these prompts: “Today, I feel _______”; “What I miss the most about _____ is _______”; “If ______ were around, they might say_______”; “All I really want to do right now is _______”; “The biggest lesson I’m learning right now is _______.”
- Jot down the signs and synchronicities that remind you of your loved one. “See if you can make meaning out of them and find comfort in these signs. Writing them down makes their occurrence more real,” Neustadter said. She shared these examples: As you’re thinking of your loved one, their favorite song comes on. You see their name on a billboard (this actually happened to Neustadter). You overhear someone saying something out of the blue that relates to something you and your loved one experienced.
- Write about your loved one—and the memories you shared. “I have found comfort, sometimes peace and even joy by chronicling the lovely attributes of someone I’ve lost,” Manning said. For instance, in her book Your Turn, Manning writes about the fond memories of picking out the best watermelon in the patch, and eating it with her grandfather. He’d give Manning a piece, say “Sit here,” lift her onto the bumper of his truck, and exclaim: “This is the best eatin’ there is.” “Write as many details as you can remember, like a scrapbook, for your later years,” Neustadter said.
Neustadter stressed the importance of having a support system with friends, family, or a therapist. “Writing is a solitary activity but make sure you don’t go through the grieving process alone.”
In her last email to John in 2010, Neustadter wrote:
“Your suicide revealed the love you’d tirelessly reflected to us. The love I always saw in you, I now recognize in myself. As I walk without you, I carry your gift inside. You’re a part of me now, in a way that wasn’t possible before your death. I hope people can feel your light and kindness through me. It’s now mine to share.
My heart is mending in spite of its damage, and my life goes on. The certainty of my death is inevitable. Until that day, I stand here, shoulders back, arms open, and offer you all the love in the world. You were the most beauty I’ve ever known. Thank you.”
Writing about our grief honors it. It acknowledges the wide array of our—sometimes contradictory—emotions. It names them and illuminates them, which is vital. Because many of us keep our pain under wraps. We bury it, and bury it, which only leads our pain to grow and then boil over—often right into various bad habits.
Writing provides us with a healthy outlet.
Writing also honors our relationship with the person. It continues the conversation. It acknowledges the funny, poignant, happy memories and moments. It makes them tangible once more.
And, maybe, it even reminds us of the bittersweet fact about most kinds of grief: how lucky we are to have loved and to still love so deeply someone who’s no longer here.