Journalling through Grief

Pauline Sewards chats with Charlotte about how writing has helped her rest and process the intensity of losing her mum.

“When my mother was in hospital during her last illness I wrote incessantly and obsessively. It was a way of reconnecting with myself between the long periods spent at her bedside. My visits to her developed a pattern, to which of necessity I became institutionalised. The visiting hours were 8 hours straight from early afternoon to early evening. This was too long, much as I loved my mum I became fidgety almost as soon as I arrived at the ward. I took at least two breaks a day in the canteen in the busy foyer of the hospital. I felt guilty for enjoying vegan sandwiches and scrummy cakes. I felt I should sing for my supper by writing. I made lists and plans in my notebook – writing for her, for her sake. I also wrote for me, outpouring of feelings, scribbling which turned into poem-shaped blocks of text…”

Pauline Sewards, excerpt from journal

Charlotte Gann: Pauline, I know your mum died recently, and that you found yourself writing a lot during her illness and have continued to since her death: as you put it in this journal entry, ‘outpouring of feelings, scribbling which turned into poem-shaped blocks of text…’

I wonder if you could say a little more about the experience of this outpouring of writing. Does it feel like something you marshalled yourself to do? (You refer to singing for your supper…) Or did it come about spontaneously – the strong impulse to write?

I can so see you, the figure of you, late afternoons, sitting with your notebook in that temporary ‘home’ of the busy hospital lobby, scribbling away… through the intensity.

Pauline Sewards: Hi Charlotte. This was a chaotic time and I was pulled in many different directions. I hoped my mum would recover and was conscious that I needed to pace myself to be able to look after her.

Caring for someone in hospital is exhausting even though the hospital is doing the caring. At times, all I wanted to do was rest. Because I was agitated and anxious, writing became a way of resting: I couldn’t settle to anything else. Your picture of me writing in my notebook in the canteen is very accurate. I also found the hospital multi-faith chapel was a good place to go to write. This was a boxlike space with plain wooden furniture and a cerise pink Christmas cactus. No one seemed to use it apart from staff taking a shortcut from one section of the hospital to another.

I was definitely driven to write at every stage of my mum’s illness. Sometimes I just wrote lists, trying to plan and problem solve. My overarching aim was to describe her, capture stories she had told me in the past. To preserve and recreate her.

She had changed from being a tremendously chatty woman, always interested in the world, to being mostly silent, refusing to wear her hearing aids, shutting down. I recorded the few words she did say. The process was painful.

This probably sounds very strange but after she died, in the early hours of the morning, I had a strong urge to get my notebook out and record that moment. I’d been told I could have as much quiet time as I wanted, but actually the staff on the ward were very present, incredibly kind but also wanting to nudge me away so they could carry out necessary tasks.

After I left the ward I realised I was too wiped out to drive safely through the dark, winding countryside to my mum’s home, sixteen miles away, where I’d been staying. Feeling extravagant, I checked into the purple splendour of the Premier Inn next to the hospital, where the young man on reception seemed unfazed by the reason for my stay. As soon as I was in my room, I got my notebook out. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep unless I wrote about what had happened.

CG: What a rich thing to do – is all I think, Pauline. I’m getting an image of you opening yourself fully to the experience… Being truly present.

I love your idea of writing as a way of resting – the only way available to you at this exhausting time…

I hear about your mum’s gradual (and necessary) withdrawal. And your building – having to build – those bridges of connection – in conversation with yourself in your notebook. Is that at all how it felt?

The ‘boxlike space’ of the chapel also really struck me – (and maybe of the Premier Inn room, too? Those out-of-our-ordinary-run containments…). But also I picture the hospital staff criss-crossing – taking their shortcut across the space where you were perched, gathering your mesh of words around you…

PS: Thanks Charlotte. That is definitely how it felt!

I wrote a poem about the chapel but haven’t been able to get it quite right – I might bring it to our next Understory group meeting…

Writing was a bridge in lots of different ways. I’ve looked in my notebook and I can see that a lot of the poems I’ve finished are distilled from freewrites. (My writing about the chapel was intended to be a poem from the outset; maybe that’s why it feels less successful…)

Anyway, all the writing felt like a private activity, with the obvious exception of the eulogy I wrote later on. I’m actually surprised by how much of the private writing I have recrafted and shared – joining in this conversation is one example!

CG: Yes, that is interesting, isn’t it – and, I think, lovely. The willingness/impulse to share the writing – experience, process…

I know you like Anne Carson’s book Nox? (In fact, we plan to close this conversation with your poem ‘Rereading Nox’… ) In a note, you’ve described Nox as: ‘a memorial to [Carson’s] brother Michael. It is presented as a box containing a single piece of paper folded into sections which contains dictionary definitions, observations from ancient Greek philosophers, scraps of handwritten letters and photos as well as fragments of poetry and memoir’.

I wonder if this is at all how you’re thinking about your own writing around the experience of your mum’s illness and death? I notice you talk about writing lists and notes as well as journal entries (that turn into poems) and poems…; and there seems to me something very tactile about a whole bunch of different kinds of writing – on different scraps of paper too?

As though all the writing is a physical ‘box’ of content and scribblings, as much as, say, a poetry sequence…? Does this, at all, speak to you, and what you’re discovering…?

PS: This does resonate. A friend had given me a beautiful notebook. It has an embossed black cover, thick paper, alternating plain and lined pages. I wrote in other notebooks as well, and on scraps of paper. (In fact, I’ve had to become my own detective to retrieve not only thoughts but lists of important tasks written during this strange period…!)

It was a messy and chaotic time. Some of the poems I’ve produced present a smooth and sanitised version of events. In reality, I was full of confusion and self-doubt.

I feel that writing has many roles for me, and self-therapy is definitely one. Among other things, I wanted to avoid self-justification – and face up to the instances where I felt I fell short, and could have done better. So, later on, a few weeks after Mum died, I bought a special notebook for this very purpose.

Someone had mentioned that it is important to protect yourself while writing about really difficult things. As a gesture to this, I chose a very small notebook, and even lit a candle for comfort while writing. The actual writing was only a fraction of the process. I kept thinking about writing in the special, little notebook before actually doing so…

I’ve put that book away for now but think it is unfinished business. Two things happened afterwards. I got ill – possibly food poisoning – which may have been a coincidence. But then, after a few days, the turbulent self-critical thoughts abated, as if they’d been laid to rest.

CG: Oh yes, I really get this: different notebooks for different purposes… The idea of the tiny notebook, and the comforting lighting. The lots of reflection, around smaller stints of actual inscribing… (some kind of funnelling?)

I’m also so glad those difficult thoughts have now abated – laid to rest, perhaps, or for now, between those (gentle) covers… I’m sure this is/can be one of the things writing gives us.

There’s such richness to this work and process, Pauline. And of course, such universality too. I’m the youngest of five, so I went through the experience of losing my mother alongside siblings. I know you’re an only child. Do you think that talking to yourself about it is also coloured, at all, by that…

PS: Funnelling is a good metaphor! Lots of words turn into a small amount of poetry, which is often pared down again by editing…

I think that being an only child has made me quite self-sufficient and resilient. Writing has always been part of my life, although it took years for me to think about improving craft or sharing work. I’m sure it is, first and foremost, a way of ‘talking to myself’ – self-therapy.

People who rallied round after Mum’s death often pointed out that I didn’t have anyone in exactly the same position as me – to share the grief. I had lots of support from close and wider family and from my own friends, so I wasn’t – am not – in any sense alone in it. But… writing, for me, means stepping out of any kind of social situation – making a narrative for others – and into an area of greater honesty.

Being an only child, and a person who writes things down, has probably been very helpful. I don’t know any other way of being, so I can’t tell! And of course have noticed that having siblings brings its own complexity…

I do feel that, although Mum was hugely loved and important to many, I am almost the sole guardian of her intellectual and cultural legacy, which is a huge responsibility…

CG: Oh yes, Pauline – and I’ve always written to ‘talk to myself’, too… (Siblings notwithstanding!)

But I hear that bit about sole responsibility for your mum’s ‘legacy’… Yes.

I’ve loved the poems and bits of journalling you’ve shared so far – and really hope the work comes together into a package that makes sense to you, and feels satisfying.

Thank you so much – for sharing some of your thoughts and experiences around this intense time. Let’s close our conversation, for now, with your lovely, short poem ‘Rereading Nox’…

Rereading Nox

and my cat is calm.
Last time I read Nox you were alive
and I believed I would never
write poems about cats on windowsills
but now my eyes are soggy
as a lawn after a wet winter
and I am grateful for small things.
The smell of toast
and the quiet of a morning
that lets me hear your voice
still playing in my head.

Words are not enough to preserve you.
I need artefacts pressed into paper like dead flowers.
Photos, and their negatives.
The one important document
that slipped into the bin of never knowing.

Pauline Sewards