Published: Aug 29, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Aug 29, 2012 05:00 PM
CHAPEL HILL - One day in the fall of 2002, author and writing instructor Carol Henderson stood in a chilly meeting room at Salem College in Winston-Salem and faced the 13 women who had gathered for her prompt writing workshop.
Leading a writing group was nothing new for Henderson; she has taught countless classes and workshops.
This one was a little different: every one of the women in the room, including Henderson, had lost a child.
“After ‘Losing Malcolm’ was published, people were constantly coming up to me and telling me their stories,” said Henderson, who wrote that book about her journey through grief after her son Malcolm died of a heart condition less than two months after he was born. “I didn’t know what to say, except to tell them what saved me: ‘Write. Share it on the page.’ I soon decided that I wanted to offer some kind of workshop for people who have experienced the loss of a child.”
The gathering at Salem College that day was intended to be a standalone one-day workshop designed to help the participants learn how to use writing as a way to process their grief and make their way toward healing. But the experience resonated so powefully that Henderson and the participants agreed to meet for a second session six months later.
And now, after 10 years, they continue to meet twice a year; this fall they will mark their 10th anniversary with a writing retreat to southern France.
Henderson’s new book, “Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers,” is, she says, “a bit of a hybrid,” both a sort of collective memoir of the group and an instruction manual on conducting a writing workshop.
Henderson and some of the women will do a reading at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Thursday, Aug. 30, and she will lead an all-day seminar for Project Compassion called “Farther Along: Writing Toward Reflection, Self-Awareness, and Healing” on Sept. 7 at the United Church of Chapel Hill.
All proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the SECU Family House in Winston-Salem.
“If it becomes a huge national bestseller I may have to reconsider that,” Henderson joked. “But it’s nice to be able to tell people about the book without it feeling self-promotional. All the money we make goes to support this wonderful organization.”
The book profiles each of the 12 women in the group (one woman dropped out after the first meeting; Henderson herself makes the 13th of the subtitle) and follows along through that difficult first workshop. Each of the participants had suffered the worst thing that can happen to a parent – the death of a child. Their children died at ages ranging from newborn to adult, from a variety of causes: illness, accident, suicide.
The raw anguish in the women made it especially important, Henderson said, for her to keep the meeting tightly controlled and focused on its purpose: writing.
“At that first meeting there was so much tension and grief and courage in that room that if we had just let ourselves start talking it would have just unleashed a flood,” she said. “We would have been there all day and still been at the starting point. It always has to come back to the writing. I’m not a psychologist; I’m a writer. And it’s not a therapy group; it’s a writing group.”
But in the writing, the women found a form of therapy. Henderson guided them, in that meeting and subsequent ones, with prompts (all of which she lists at the back of the book). Some of the prompts dealt specifically with their children and their deaths – “Write about something that belonged to your child,” “Write a letter to your child” – and others were more general: “What matters?’ “Write about silence.” Many prompts asked participants to respond to particular poems, and others addressed healing – “Write about what brings you peace.”
“Writing can take you to places that talking can’t,” Henderson said. “Writing can help us find fresh angles to our experiences, and once we write something down it’s no longer trapped in our heads. So often you write your way to where you’re going.”
The book includes numerous excerpts, some of them heartbreaking, from the participants’ writing.
“It’s an amazing group of women,” Henderson said. “There’s a magical quality in them. We’ve shared so much, and we’ve become so close. We’re about to celebrate our 10th year togther, and it will be a wonderful celebration – and yet you think, what brought us together? That will never be OK.
“This isn’t a workshop that makes you hop out of bed and go ‘Hooray! It’s workshop day!’ But I have so much admiration for these women. There’s a calm now that comes over that room when we get together to write. We’ve all experienced that pain, the memories, the losses and triumphs. This is a container for that. Then we leave and go on back to our lives, until the next time.”