My View

My View: Write, for what ails you

August 27, 2013 

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Carol Henderson offers a writing workshop for those who are grieving with UNC Hospitals Bereavement Coordinator Heidi Gessner, located at UNC Hospitals.

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Are you spending a lot of time with a loved one who is ill? Are you a health care professional who cares for patients? Are you a patient?

If so, I have a recommendation for you: Take a writing workshop. Not just any writing workshop, though; take one that I offer with UNC Hospitals Bereavement Coordinator Heidi Gessner, located at UNC Hospitals.

Thanks to support from Project Compassion and The Inavale Foundation, these hourlong workshops are free and open to anyone at UNC Hospitals – staff, patients or caregivers. They are for anybody who seeks quiet time to reflect and to those in the community caring for, or suffering the loss of, a loved one.

You might be wondering: “What would a writing workshop do for me? I’m not a writer. I’m too burned out, and I’m in too much pain.”

But you don’t have to consider yourself a writer. If you can talk, you can write. And you’ll be surprised at what you discover in the quiet of writing, which gives you the opportunity to explore your deepest feelings.

I offer these workshops all over the country. Last year, Janet Foster Lewis of Winston-Salem, a bereaved mother whose son had died two years earlier, made herself attend a workshop; she was skeptical at the start. But she said later: “I never knew writing would bring out so many feelings that I had no idea were even there – feelings that seemed to be stuck in my heart, my chest, my throat.”

Releasing these feelings through writing is good for us. Research shows that writing about deep, and even painful, life experiences lowers our blood pressure and pulse rate. Our bodies then produce more helpful T-cells, boosting our immunity.

In the workshops, we gently probe, reflect and remember. This helps us to reconsider and re-imagine our lives, as well as discover inner resources. We make connections we wouldn’t otherwise make, and we often discover healing shifts in perspective.

Most of us are so busy – and sometimes, so scared – that we don’t give ourselves time for reflection. I always write with the group, and one aspect of the writing workshops I really like is that we turn inward and go deep to write, but we are not doing so alone. Others all around us are writing, too. Yet unlike in a talking group, we don’t have to share to interact with others – unless we choose to do so.

Sometimes people worry they won’t have anything to say. All I know is I’ve been offering workshops for 15 years, and everyone has always been able to write plenty. At the end of the workshop, I send people home with tips on how to keep writing.

I am passionate about the restorative value of writing because I’ve experienced it. After my first child died in open-heart surgery, I wrote a memoir, “Losing Malcolm: A Mother’s Journey Through Grief.” When I gave readings, people approached me afterward and told me their unbearable stories; they would then ask me for help. All I could say to them is what I say to myself: “Write.”

Author Flannery O’Connor wrote that if you share your writing, your words might save somebody’s life and, if you don’t share, your words will still have an impact on somebody: you. The life you save might be your own.

I know writing has saved my life.

A nurse from the cancer hospital said, “The workshop gives me time to reflect on my busy clinic days, to breathe. The prompts and writings remind me of how taking a quiet walk in the woods can settle me or strike me with tenderness or awe during a moment of witnessed beauty.”

The workshops start up again in September, at noon on Wednesdays. For more information, contact chaplain Heidi Gessner at UNC Hospitals Bereavement Support Services through email, HGessner@unch.unc.edu, or by calling 919-966-0716.

Carol Henderson is a writer, teacher and workshop leader. Her most recent book, “Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers,” was published in July 2012. For more information, visit www.carolhenderson.com.

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