My dad died April 30 after a long battle with cancer. I was with him in his final moments, and I held his hand during his last breath. It was, to say the least, a jarring and transformative moment. Since then, I've written 60 pages on a gut-wrenching epic Fantasy, gone to 6 yoga classes, cried a million tears, and had too many nightmares to count. I've been tweeting about grief and art and coffee creamer. And I've learned some things.
Although this was my first time witnessing death up close, I'm no stranger to trauma. As I've mentioned before, I've dealt with depression, suicide, rape, abuse, PTSD, anxiety, miscarriage. When Last Night a Superhero Saved My Life comes out on June 7, you'll know the truth about my complicated relationship with my father and why the Hulk means so much to me. I strongly feel like we, as a society and as artists, need to be more open about mental health issues and pain and how the struggle of adulting, of real life, leaks into our work. And I want to tell you how I'm personally using that struggle to fuel my art instead of letting it poison or silence me.
1. Get meta
There were so many moments while caring for my dad in hospice that I thought, “This is an entirely unique experience, and I need to remember it.” Watching the body shut down, knowing what it's like to sit vigil through the night, waking up and holding your breath to listen: it's a strange and frightening territory that most humans will go through, and no matter who is around you, just like in death, you go it alone. If I can stop in a moment and think, “One day, this moment will be useful to me,” it helps to process it. Trauma is obviously not pleasant, but it can inform your art and perhaps, one day, help other people get through a tough time.
2. Use your work as an escape
Caring for someone in hospice is hard work—body, mind, and soul. When you get a little time off, you can blank out with the TV or you can channel all the snakes in your head into art. There were times, over the past few weeks, when I'd leave someone else at my dad's bedside, go into another room, put in earphones, and write like hell. I began writing in 2009 as relaxation after spending all day with two babies, and so it feels natural to think of the story throughout the day, clock out, and give whatever I have left to the work. When I was pregnant, I fell into painting like this. Doing something with my body besides creating a new body felt wildly indulgent. If you can't write, try coloring or painting or woodworking. There's always a way to fit art into troubled times. Flow is very restorative to the artist's brain.
3. Accept that sometimes, it simply won't happen
No matter how prolific an artist you are, no matter how many ideas you have, there will be days that you simply have nothing left to give. The words won't come, the lines won't work, and you'll feel like a failure and a waste of space, and fuck that. Every field has to lie fallow for a while to let the soil rebuild its strength and health. Find something that will refill your well and nourish your dirt and do that. Read a great book, read a shitty book, read an old, comforting favorite. Bake, take yourself out for a nice meal, do your preferred exercise, go hit golfballs after writing curse words on them in Sharpie. There's nothing to be gained by staring at a blank page and blaming yourself. Doing anything is better than doing nothing. They might be dying, but you need to live.
4. Remember that everyone grieves differently
The five stages of grief are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. But that doesn't mean there's a normal, expected progression or timeline. You might have some of them, all of them, in this order or out of order. You might bounce back to anger again and again; ask me how I know. You might displace your feelings and get angry at the dog because you can't get angry at your dying friend. You might compartmentalize and try to ignore reality as much as possible; again, really, ask me how I know. You might tell everyone you're fine and then wake up covered in tears. There is no one way to grieve. Everyone grieves differently. Don't feel guilty or bad for how you deal with trauma. As long as you come out the other side, as long as you live through it, you're doing fine. Expectations are the enemy.
5. Consider working through your feelings using your art
If you read Wicked as They Come, you see a damaged woman with trust issues who goes crazy from lack of sleep. If you read Servants of the Storm, you see a girl who can't get over her dead best friend. If you read Strike, you see a girl dealing with PTSD. If you read Wake of Vultures, you see a person struggling to accept themselves when no one else will. My short story, Sundowning, came about after my first all-nighter in the ICU. Don't even get me started on the epic Fantasy I'm writing right now and the daddy issues therein.
Thing is, the struggles I feel in real life end up on the pages of my books, and my job is to make them pretty, palatable, and useful to the reader without getting preachy or hopeless. There's a passage in Strike where Wyatt explains the concept of a Memory Palace to Patsy, and she internalizes it as a Forgetting Attic. That's me. That's my attic. That's my pigeonhole desk full of locked drawers containing the moments of my life that hurt the most. I had to put in that part because that's how I deal with my PTSD, and if it could help a teen dealing with some of the same shit, I want them to have another strategy in their bag of tricks. Your characters are real people with real problems, and their thoughts and words can help you get to the other side of your own experiences. Let them speak for you. It can help you process deeper feelings and internal conflicts that you might be hiding, even from yourself.
6. Remember that it takes time
Grieving is not an easy process. You don't start with Denial on Monday and check off the box for Acceptance on Friday in time for a breezy weekend. There is no gold star for getting over death more quickly or tidily than anyone else. Lean on people. Call in favors. Excuse yourself to cry, or just cry wherever you are, like I did in yoga last night. Claim the time, space, and energy you need. I had to cancel several appearances this spring because I. Just. Can't. I've had to learn to step back and grab the shoulders of well-meaning huggers who encroach on my personal space.
You might not be able to write for weeks. Or what you write might seem crappy or loose or overly purple in the prose. Publishing will not move on without you. All the agents won't have chosen dance partners before you're done grieving. The world will wait for you, for your book. Even deadlines can be moved. It takes what it takes. Just be kind to yourself, okay? Grief fades in and out. It surprises you. You'll think you're doing okay and then have a dream that takes you back to step one. And that's okay.
If you have a heart, you will experience grief one day. Maybe a lot of grief. But that pain can be useful to you. That pain makes you who you are. That pain reminds you that life is precious and to be lived, that you need to revisit your bucket list, that you need to go stand with your feet in the ocean and hug all your friends tighter. That pain ties you to every other human on earth, and to elephants and apes and service dogs mourning by coffins. That pain is a bolt of lightning from destiny, spurring you onward. Your days are numbered, pal, so use them well. Don't ignore or belittle or hide your pain. Live it and honor it and use it to rip someone else's heart out with words so that they, too, remember why we're alive.