Writing Through Grief

Much has been written about the therapeutic effects of writing, about its ability to help you sort out the noise in your head and push on. For Sarah Kilch Gaffney, the act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, has become a “lifeline.”

As a young widow and single mom, Gaffney turned to writing to help her process her grief and to forge a new life with her toddler daughter. She writes beautifully of the experience in a recent Washington Post essay.

Please welcome Sarah to Write Despite.


I have always been a creative type, and I started writing in my late teens. I studied creative writing and environmental studies in college and went on to work in the conservation field for a number of years. I never stopped writing, but I also found it challenging to write with any sort of consistency. A poem here or there. A fiction story started but rarely finished.

Fast forward several years and I found myself in starkly different circumstances. My young husband was dying from a brain tumor and I was caring for him and our toddler daughter.

And I felt compelled to write about what was happening to us, like there was somehow no possible way that I could not write it all down and get it all out. During the last weeks of his life, I wrote an essay about our decision to have our daughter despite his terminal diagnosis. I remember desperately wanting to get it submitted before he died, having no idea if anyone would even want to publish it. In a surreal series of events, I sent the essay out on a Tuesday and the following day my husband’s hospice nurse told me we were looking at hours to days. He died that Saturday night, and Sunday morning the essay was accepted for publication.

I’ve continued to send essays into the world ever since.

Writing about my husband’s illness and death, and the challenges of raising a child as a young widow, has helped me work through my grief more effectively than bereavement groups, grief therapy, and anything else I have encountered. Everything has helped, but writing through it all has been the most fruitful. Knowing that there are others in the world finding comfort in my words, realizing that perhaps they are not alone in their suffering, has also given me a deeper purpose. That my grief might help others with their grief was an astonishing revelation.

Right now I am in a state of great flux in my life. My daughter and I just marked one year since losing my husband and her father. I recently left nursing school, which was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, but which has also brought me great relief and closure. I started nursing school to take care of my husband, to save him in the only way I could think of. I returned to school after he died, but my heart was no longer in it. Though I was succeeding in every aspect of the program, it became clear that I was succeeding despite myself and that I was not happy. I have learned the hard way that life’s far too short for that sort of thing.

As I start the process of rebuilding my life with my daughter, of figuring out what I want to do and what direction I want to take, my writing remains a constant source of grounding, problem-solving, and emotional expression. For me, writing is both an escape and a way to face my grief head-on, with all of the rawness, beauty, and love that I can manage. Writing allows me to focus and reflect on the small moments in life that are so, so important: reading with my little one, going for walks in the woods with her, acknowledging all of the good things in my life. It also gives me a chance to spend time with myself and to work through my grief on my own terms. It is a crucial and tangible lifeline, and I’m holding on for dear life.