Can Grief Be Written Away?

Even when your life cracks in half, you can move forward.

Posted Sep 23, 2012

Broken Glass
A teen boy was walking his girlfriend home one night when a drunk driver crashed into them. The girl died, the boy lived. That hit-and-run accident cracked Carolyn Roy-Bornstein's life into a before-and-after that is described with writerly grace in her memoir Crash: A Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude.

A pediatrician and a writer, Roy-Bornstein's publication credits range from JAMA to Pediatrics for Parents to Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Q & A with Carolyn Roy-Bornstein:

Q: In your acknowledgments you thank someone for "seeing the book that was trying to emerge from the one I was originally writing." Memoirs are tricky that way. There can be so many "right" ways to approach the material. Can you tell us more about your process?

The reason I started to write this book is ultimately not the reason I finished it. From the very first night of the crash, I was grateful Neil survived but at the same time grieving for his losses. His traumatic brain injury caused a profound depression, memory loss and a changed personality. But standing in the shadow of the mother whose child was killed in the accident, I felt guilty for my feelings of grief. After all, shouldn't I just be grateful Neil was alive? It was this concept of disenfranchised grief that I thought was the story I needed to tell.

But ultimately, that was just a small part of a larger story, a story of hope and reslience and the power of family.

Q: Although you always kept a journal, you didn't catch up with your notes and entries until some time after the main events happened, and years more to be ready to write Crash. I take it you'd agree with author Martin Amis, who said, "What happens to you in your life doesn't become available as fiction until after a three-year lag, because it has to travel up and down your spine."

The English author Graham Greene, too, talks about the emotional and temporal distance a writer must have from an experieince in order to gain the necessary perspective. He describes it as "the sliver of ice in the heart of a writer." I fully believe that and know that this is why it took me so long to write the book. I needed time and distance to fully appreciate the experience's meaning and impact in my life. I teach memoir and personal essay courses and I often have students come in wanting to write about a subject that they are clearly too close to to have the necessary perspective.

Q: Some people urged you to move on, as they couldn't understand that the after-effects of the accident would continue for a very long time. How did you explain to them?

Answering the question, "How is Neil doing?" grew harder and harder. Early on, it was easy. There were CAT scan results to report, outcomes of operations, weeks of physical therapy completed. Five years after the crash, Neil had graduated from college, had a teaching position and looked, on the outside, perfectly fine. But he still suffered from depression and saw a therapist. He graduated college, but struggled with memory loss and PTSD. In some ways, I think I wrote this book to answer the question, "How's Neil?"

Q: Which is more infuriating: the fact that people continue to drive drunk, or that the court system is so slow and drawn out that victims feel victimized again and again?

You know, I spent some time in Sweden many years ago. There, they have very strict drunk driving laws, or they did when I was there. There, if you were caught drinking and driving, you lost your license. For good. Period. It made for some very interesting parties: One partner at the party would be stone cold sober while the other would be happily drinking away. It was just how it was.  Everyone knew the consequences and behaved accordingly.

In this country, lawyers have made a specialty of getting drunk drivers off. Here we see drunk drivers arrested again and again, even after licenses have been suspended. Here, our culture needs to change. This cannot remain the norm.

Q: I noted the subtitle of your book, and it seems intended to convey an uplifting message. Do you still get very upset when you think about what happened or mainly thankful that Neil's injuries weren't even worse?

While there is an urgent social message to the book, the ultimate story is hopeful and optimistic, and I'm glad you picked up on that. And while I certainly am grateful Neil's head injury wasn't worse, I do want to get out the word that traumatic brain injury (TBI) is often an unapparent wound. For people who have experienced a TBI or know someone who has, I hope my book is a mirror for them. I hope they read what I've written and say, "Yes! That is how it was for me." And for people who have not expereinced TBI, I want to convey the message that people who may look perfectly fine on the outside may struggle more than we know.

Q: Will you comment on the value of writing, especially of being an experienced writer as you are, when it comes to getting through such challenging times?

The benefits of writing about difficult or traumatic experiences is well-documented. (And I guess I'm speaking as a physician here.) Many studies have shown that ill patients who are asked to write about their experiences show improvements in physically measurable parameters such as lung capacity and immune function.

As a medical professional, I see writing as a way to explore and better understand my relationships with my patients and my colleagues. I recently had the good fortune to run a workshop at the University of Iowa's Examined Life Conference along with Neillie Herman, Creative Director at Columbia University Medical School. Nellie talked about writing as a way to "exert control over something we can never control--the past."

So even though I cannot change what has happened, I can shape the narrative. I can own it. I can take an obstacle and turn it into an opportunity. I learned about the intricacies of traumatic brain injury. As an ambassador for the Brain Injury Association, I talk to high school students at pre-prom events, college students during Alcohol Awareness Week, doctors and nurses at Trauma Symposia. I am not about to let this drunk driver's actions define who I am. I will not let my peace be about what kind of sentence he receives or how much of it he serves.

People ask me if writing this book was cathartic. I say it was the opposite of cathartic. It was like scraping at scabs every day. But it was necessary. It was necessary for me to write this book. To define my family's reaction to this tragedy and to chart our course moving forward.

  • Read Carolyn's blog.
  • You might like a previous post of mine on grief.

Copyright (2012) by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.

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