Words for Unwanted Journeys


It was only after I’d finished writing the poem that I realised: this would be the last one I would write about my mother.

From the time she had started to decline in health as Parkinson’s Disease advanced, I found some of the poems I wrote began to reflect this unwanted journey. I needed words to express the impact of what was happening on both our lives and our relationship.

The poems continued as I grieved her death just over two years ago. Recently, her water-colour painting of foxgloves was returned to me. It was a painting precious to both myself and the gentleman friend who had asked for it to grace his wall for a season after Mum died. As I gazed at it once more, I wrote ‘Foxgloves,’ a poem that helped me explore how her painting is not just about the flowers she loved. It also depicts the flowers ‘as she imaged them.’ Something of her is framed through these blooms, and engaging with that in words helped bring to rest my own grieving.

Personal grief goes beyond the currency of everyday language. It can set us searching for new words to express it. Poetic language is particularly suited to the intensity and mystery of emotional, barely containable experience. In the Foreword to his poetry collection ‘Undying,’ Michael Faber notes how the loss of his wife Eva prompted an unforeseen shift in his writing. ‘I hadn’t known such need for poetry before,’ he observes, adding that at times he was writing’ up to five poems a day.’

Other forms of writing may help, too. Brian, interviewed for my book “Writing our Faith,’ told me of finding an urge to write after his younger brother’s death in his fifties. This emerged in different forms, from a biographical list of dates to descriptions of the brothers’  regular mountain climbing expeditions. And in the counselling room, I have listened to beautiful – and cathartic – eulogies for a deceased loved one, as well as unsent letters to them that have helped the bereaved process some of their emotions and manage their loss.

Unwanted journeys generally involve loss of some kind, not always of a person. The loss may be of health, or role or work, of relationship. Such situations take us through different stages – disbelief or disorientation; sorrow or anger; weariness or challenge; resolution or acceptance.

Writing is not a one-size-fits-all activity. The pen is a versatile tool, and various forms of writing may help us, depending on the stage we have reached.

Knowing something of the different writing approaches available to us can help us make the most of supporting ourselves in this way. I’m running a workshop day for counsellors and others engaged in the helping professions on finding Words for Unwanted Journeys on March 17th at Gladstone’s Library. Do get in touch if you’d like to find out more about joining us, or if you are not a health professional, but would be interested in coming to a more open workshop on this theme. And I’m always interested to hear from anyone about what sort of writing they have found helpful and when.

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