Joan Hanna: We were so happy to have “Ashes” as part of our April issue. This was an intensely personal story about your son, Ben, who was stillborn. Can you share with our readers how you deal with the emotions that rise up when writing about highly personal and emotional experiences?
Virginia Williams: Writing the story of Ben’s life and death has happened in many different forms for me; a few weeks after his death, dear friends of mine, part of a mother’s group I belonged to, gave me a journal in which they had written brief notes of love and sorrow for our loss. They expressed the hope that I could write in that journal as a way to begin my own healing process. It took me perhaps another month after that to begin writing, and many of my entries were in the form of letters to Ben.
Those entries gave me the space to put into words some of the worst things I was feeling: the anger, the pain, the incomprehensibility of it all. On days when I felt too numb to cry, I could simply write, “How can I feel so numb?” and not worry about if the feelings made sense to anyone who might ask me how I was doing. Writing the essay “Ashes,” however, took me many more years to even begin. Once I began writing it, along with a full-length memoir manuscript about Ben’s death, I’d been through the worst of the emotions and overcome the disbelief of his loss, but many times the grief returned as I wrote.
Learning to keep writing anyway, despite the sorrow, was a constant balancing act. If things started to hurt too much, I pulled back and focused on something else, perhaps
jotting down a scene or a memory that wasn’t as intense but still relevant to the story. But because I was reliving the memories and the pain, I had to take my time with the writing so it wouldn’t overwhelm me.
JH: Journaling is a theme that so many writers share when dealing with emotionally charged issues and blogs seem to be another way to open a dialogue. I visited your blog, In The Land of Broken Hearts, which deals with these same issues but on a much larger scale. Can you give us a glimpse of what our readers can find there and how you have used your blog to help others going through similar experiences?
VW: I started blogging so that other parents like me could find some of the “truth” about life after losing a child to stillbirth. When Ben died, I wanted true-to-life accounts of living after loss and had difficulty finding any that were very satisfying. There were books with studies and statistics, but few accounts to tell me if it was possible to survive a loss that devastated everything my husband and I felt and believed about our lives.
I write my blog posts with what I hope is a perspective on what was—that is, the early days of loss and how I felt—as well as with a perspective from my current life. I want my readers to know that it still hurts, even seven years on, but it’s different. It’s not as painful, it doesn’t hurt every day. I want my readers to see what I needed to see seven years ago, that life without your child can still be worth living. It’s incredibly hard to recover from losing a child, but it is survivable. I hope that anyone reading my blog who has lost a child will see reflected some of what they are experiencing and know that they aren’t losing their minds—which is something I felt almost daily in the year after Ben’s death. Grief does strange things to one’s thoughts and I would often find myself thinking something extraordinarily untrue and, in my mind, perhaps even bordering on crazy. I want parents to know that those wild thoughts are normal and that there are others of us right there with them.
I’ve received such validation and understanding from my readers about what I write. I can put up a post saying that sometimes I need a safe space to say “I miss you” to my son without anyone thinking that I am dwelling in my loss or holding on to Ben too hard. And stillbirth parents get that and are right there with me. There’s great relief found in the companionship of loss.
JH: Aside from the personal validation in sharing your own story, you share many helpful and interesting links and information on your blog. Can you also share other resources or groups available for anyone who may need additional help or information?
VW: The book They Were Still Born: Personal Stories about Stillbirth (Rowman & Littlefield, November 2010) is a wonderful resource for families (full disclosure: I wrote the first chapter, “What No One Tells You”). There are chapters written by mothers, fathers, and even a grandparent, along with a very helpful resource section. There are a multitude of online resources, but to start learning more about stillbirth and gain immediate, professional support, I like Share Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support and First Candle. Both sites provide helpful information and support and are a terrific starting point.
I also recommend the blog Glow in the Woods. A group of bereaved parents runs this site, and every post is an essay on some aspect of loss. The writing is exceptional and the writers, and readers, share every facet of loving and losing and finding your way back to life. It’s a powerful place.
JH: It’s a lovely thing that you are reaching out to so many people that might not know about these resources. But on a more personal note, deeply emotional experiences have a tendency to change us as women and as writers. The death of your son, Ben, has obviously had an effect on how you approach your writing. Can you explain how this has changed you as a writer?
VW: I find that I’m very direct these days. My writing has always been on the spare side—I’ve never believed in using more when less would do (there are, of course, always exceptions!). I’m far more honest with what I’m trying to express and much more careful in considering how best to approach a piece of writing. I’ve become a better writer through trying to get to the truth about loss. It’s not something I’d thought about before Ben died, but since his death I’ve realized how unwilling we are, as a society, to talk about death and I really believe it’s important to start the conversation, as uncomfortable as that might be. With my writing, I hope to help people begin to talk truthfully about grief by lessening some of the fear attached to sorrow.
JH: This is a wonderful realization–that we can find the strength to talk about our grief by lessening the fear attached to sorrow. I think this begins to speak about finding
the way to recovery. We thank you so much for sharing this highly personal story. Just one final question, can you share with us what recovery means to you?
VW: Thank you for the opportunity–you saved the hardest question for last! Recovery, for me, means incorporating Ben’s death into my life, which sounds like such an easy answer, when really it took years of working through the sorrow and anger I was left with after he died. Someone told me, early on, that one day the fact of my son’s death would be much the same as the fact that I have blue eyes, and she was right. Losing my son is part of who I am now and his loss is reflected in how I approach the world. It’s an invisible scar I’m always aware of, but no longer an open wound.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I needn’t be afraid of grieving my son; he is still a part of me and I miss him every day. I’ve learned that grief has no fixed end point; it ebbs and flows like the tide. When I was able to accept that flow of grief in my life, I was able to feel as “recovered” as I will ever be.