At the end of 2019, I started Overexpressed.blog because I had the chance to write about what it means to live with HER2+ MBC. This blog space also allows me to share the story of others and to pay homage to women writers that I adore. I’ll admit, I am a total fangirl!
Today’s post showcases five women writers who have had to face suffering and loss. By writing about their journeys, their words have helped me, and I imagine countless others, to heal. If reading creative nonfiction/memoir is your thing, I encourage you to check out these five gems.
If you have a favorite book about grief, loss, and healing, share it with us.
I first discovered Eve Joseph’s work through her award-winning essay “Yellow Taxi” from At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die. This essay later became part of In the Slender Margin. In this book, she weaves together her meditations on her long career in hospice with the lasting psychic effects of her brother’s early death. Part literary exploration, part memoir, part poetry, award-winning Canadian writer and poet, Eve Joseph manages to look directly at the mystery of death and reveal all its heartbreak and splendor.
In 2000, I had the chance to meet Elizabeth Alexander and spend the day with her. I knew her as a poet. This was way before she wrote and read “Praise Song for the Day,” Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential Inauguration poem. And way before the sudden and devastating death of her husband, artist Ficre Ghebreyesus in 2012.
Written in prose-poem like chapters, Elizabeth Alexander threads her way through their intertwined histories, their love of art, poetry, and culture, and their shared love for each other and their sons. Toward the end of the book, Alexander recounts, “‘Oh beauty, you are the light of the world!’ was the quotation we chose for the bench by the side of the grave, from a poem by Derek Walcott my teacher, whose words Ficre and I revered. The exaltation with which we met, and beauty itself, the things we both chased and tried to re-create in our work, that which lights the world and its darkness that he understood so well…Beauty is the beloved, and beauty is beauty itself, in its natural form and as made.” Yes!
In the Introduction of Harper’s book, she uses this epigraph: God breaks the heart again and again/and again until it stays open by Hazrat Inayat Khan. An exquisite opening for a heartrending memoir of self-revelation. A long time ER doctor, Harper is an African American woman working in a world of white men. This memoir—a reflective look at how individual patients and their suffering taught her lessons about herself—is a visceral journey from fear to healing. I especially appreciated that during her healing journey, she finds yoga. Here she beautifully captures its essence: “Holding strong and long and letting go everywhere else: The wisdom to discern between the two is critical. Never forget to breathe. Always stay present to the gift of breath.”
Both hospital chaplain and birth doula, Amy Wright Glenn’s Holding Space is a fierce and compassionate reflection on death. Her narrative, which intertwines with her own story of her challenging relationship with her mother, is about knowing sorrow on its deepest level. She tackles fear and the Buddhist idea of “hungry ghosts.” She gently instructs us on how to hold space for yourself and others. And most profoundly she writes, “If the true axis mundi resides within an awakened heart, it is essential that we bring a compassionate and courageous energy to the work of welcoming one another to earthly existence and honoring one another’s dignity when we leave. When supported with love, we open to the beauty of life.”
Quite honestly, before I read this book, I only knew of Terry Tempest Williams’ environmental essays and books. Then I was gifted When Women Were Birds, one of the most startlingly beautiful books I have ever read. Written in hauntingly spare prose, these fifty-four variations on voice explore Williams’ relationship to faith and her upbringing, her relationship with her mother, and the beauty and construction of self and art. She hears her mother’s voice as a “lullaby in my cells” and recounts “my body feels her breathing.” As a mother and writer, I was drawn into the complexity of what it means to have a voice. Williams writes, “Each voice belongs to a place. Solitude is a place.” And “True eloquence has an edge, sharp and clean.” This truly inspiring book connects the reader and writer across space and time, opening up the reader’s potential to hear their own healing voice.