Door Number Three?

A couple things happened this past week which don’t particularly seem related but are if only because there’s either the familiar, self-destructive way to deal with them or the way that I can say lots of really smart things about, but seem unable to actually do.

These couple things are also about writing; what it is I’m doing here writing this blog where I take pause and look at the sorrow of my son having died and what all that means because it’s not only changed whatever I thought the future was going to be, it’s changed the way I see the past. And it’s forced me into constant reckoning with the fact that there only, ever is Now.

I work this out here because we’ve all an ancient need to tell and to hear our stories, and we live in a time where we’ve got virtual communities to do so.

A couple weeks ago I started a short term writing class about how to publish personal essays, which I thought would be easy since I’ve a got a blog full of them. Except it doesn’t work like that.  After reading aloud the couple pieces I’d brought in, the woman who’s running the class said – and in the gentlest way possible – that what I’ve written doesn’t work in the way I’ve written it and this should go here and that should go there and the rest of it isn’t necessary and on and on until I felt like she was taking what I’d written and making it into something I wasn’t trying to say. But the worst thing about it was that I didn’t hear it. I thought it worked, exactly as I’d written it. That I can’t hear what I’m writing is beyond dismaying.

And into the mix came a cryptic email from a long-time long-distance friend X who I haven’t heard from in a month and a half or so and who wrote that she’s “been reading my blogs” and decided that “Natalie must feel like not only did her brother die, but her mother has as well. She must be very lonely;” and that she’s an “innocent victim of my grief.  Why else would she want to spend more time at Phil’s.”

And, she says, her only reason for saying this is because she’s worried about Natalie, who I’m not sure she’s ever even met and if she did, it was when Natalie was a wee bit of a thing. Because had she met her, the last thing she’d call my scrappy, in-your-face, don’t-mess-with-me daughter is a victim of anything.

But reading that shook me up and began an obsessive chain of thinking that echoed back through the years of when I didn’t know better. The years spent locked in relationships (not only romantic ones) where I swore I was the victim and the closest I got to seeing what my part was was to say, well, I must have a part ‘cause it takes two but I’ll be damned if I know what it is because she is so doing that to me.

Obsessiveness and writing don’t work for me, in spite of my writing teacher suggesting the reason I keep writing about Philip is because I’m obsessed. I see “obsessed” as blinding and shortsighted which maybe isn’t at all how she meant it, but that’s how I took it and so twice in one week I decided I was the victim of a world that I always knew I didn’t belong in.

I’m not obsessed with Philip. When he first died, and for at least that first year – that’s obsessed. What the hell else would I be? And for that year, I – who at the time of his death was 150 pages into what I saw as a hot and sexy memoir – was not able to write a word because the grief-obsession duo made everything move too quickly to capture in words and drained me of both the will and energy to do so.

So now I feel like the contestant in Monty Hall’s Let’s Make A Deal who has to choose between Door Number One or Door Number Two or Door Number Three, except that what’s behind them is no secret to me. Behind Door Number One is angst and depression because I am what I write and if I can’t make a goddamn essay with the thousands of words that I’ve already written, then what the fuck am I here for? Behind Door Number Two is self-righteous victimhood and insecurity because how dare she and who the fuck does she think she is but maybe she’s right and what kind of mother am I, what kind of person with my goddamn tale of woe and what’s wrong with me that I still haven’t gotten with the program?

Then there’s Door Number Three, which is where truth lies and you’d think it’d be easy to walk through that door, but it isn’t. It hasn’t the obsessive seduction of tearing X apart and stomping through her bloody remains, or of watching myself whither away because the Teacher likes everyone but me and I can’t write and I can’t live without my son and life’s a big suck ball so why can’t I please just fucking die.

Behind Door Number Three lies the meaning of “it takes two.” Because first there’s the fact of what happens, and then there’s the way I choose to look at it. And that is how one creates a life.

A blog post is not, in fact, an essay. There’s the possibility of it turning into one, but it’s hard. I can choose to try to do that, or I can work on an essay instead of a blog post. I can choose to put my energy into what it takes to get published now, or I can continue to learn about it and try to make it happen later on. That’s all; there isn’t any drama here. There’s figuring out what I want to do, then figuring out how to get it done.

And this situation with X, which is too perfect: here I am suffering a death I consider way more tragic than my own, and what I thought was her loving hand was really holding a knife. And when I tell this story like that, I can get my goddamn ego stroked because no one should treat a grieving mother like that and how much better am I ’cause I’d never, ever do such a thing. And there was a time that would have satisfied me, but at the price of having to repeat my sad story until it grew flimsy and full of holes, but then sure enough along would come another injustice and I could start all over again.

But how about I change the story. How about I say…nothing happened. It’s a fact, of course, that X wrote those things. But what’s that change about me or my life? If I think it matters that much and I attack back, then I must think I’m small and weak and that someone’s words can threaten me, can change something fundamental about me.

What if I changed the story to understand that X is in her own pain, because people don’t lash out if they’re not. And if that’s true, why do I want to make it worse with a counterattack? Contrary to the laws of this world, we have what we give. If I shoot poison at her, I have that poison, which comes from an ever-replenishing well where the more I give, the more I have.

AA talks about detaching with love. Whatever, I used to think. Not so much any more. And I mean love as in keeping an open heart. I’m not saying I have to send flowers to X and tell her what she said didn’t matter and everything’s all Kumbaya. I’m way too human for that, and the fact is, it does hurt. Detaching with love means seeing this friendship has been fraught with difficulty and if I don’t like the way I’m treated, I end it. But I keep my heart open because when it shuts down in response to the pain I blame someone else for, all it does is shut that pain deep inside of it. That’s what the light’s about, the diamond Philip offered me. That’s the light that burns through the suffering and transmutes it first into something bearable and eventually to the joy that’s its other side.

And I am working on it, because no one feels the deadliness of my anger more than I do.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


30 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Becki Duckworth
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 14:36:00

    I think that these 2 people were emotionally bullying you. You need to be able to grieve the way you want to.


    • Denise
      Nov 24, 2013 @ 14:43:24

      Thank you for thinking kindly of me. My writing teacher was doing her job – she’s trying to help me write for publication, which is a whole other deal from writing a blog. X? What can I say? I guess she can’t understand that I have to – as you say – grieve the way I want to; but it’s up to me not to add to my own pain, and that – at least in part – is a choice I have.


  2. Joyce McCartney
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 15:00:32

    If I may, from the perspective of an editor say this: It is our job (mine, and your teachers) to “kill the babies” in what writers write. It SUCKS to do that, some of us can do it with more compassion, more understanding than others. Others just shut themselves down as human beings and tell you what needs to stay, what needs to go where and what needs to go period. You are write, what you are doing here is blogging. Logging your life and your grief. When you’re ready to write something to be published, you will take what, hopefully, is constructive criticism and rock it. (You may already know this, but I so wanted you to know I support you and understand what you’re saying. My own blog posts could use an editor, this I know.)
    As for the friend: Oh boy, that’s not an easy one. If it’s a friend who doesn’t know your daughter, my guess is it may not be a really close friend? That and the fact that you haven’t heard from her in a month and a half tells me that, not responding and not hearing from her again wouldn’t be a bad thing.
    Blog on sister.


    • Denise
      Nov 24, 2013 @ 18:30:50

      Hey Joyce – you know, in the past, I’ve taken tough editing from my English Professor/Poet/Mentor friend Ed and loved it, because he’s helped me become the writer I am today. I didn’t realize how sensitive I’d be to the very criticism I needed; and the woman I’m working with is kind. She said nothing “wrong,” but I’m so raw that it was just a huge blow to my ego. And Philip’s in the mix here; point is, I need to calm down and keep writing. You’re absolutely right, sister ;o) – when I want to write to be published, then that’s what I’ll turn to.

      And the friend – it’s a long complicated relationship, but it’s over. If I hold that anger, I suffer. It’s a distraction from what I really suffer, and what I really need to deal with – Philip’s death.

      So glad you’re around. I don’t know what it is about you, but you make me feel better.


  3. Susan
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 16:28:27

    No one can understand unless they too are grieving a death of a child. My son left this world just 7 weeks ago! No one understands!!! I feel your pain through every letter you write and I command you for writing. Keep Your son’s memory alive……don’t ever stop talking about how you feel and do it your way.


    • Denise
      Nov 24, 2013 @ 18:47:17

      Oh, Susan, I am so so sorry for your loss; I know no one can understand because you are his mother and there is no relationship like the one you have with your child. Philip had been dead for seven weeks when I started to go to a grief group for parents. And even though we were all there for the same reason, all I could think was, you don’t understand, you didn’t lose Philip.

      Much as I suffered the weeks and the months as you are, I can’t imagine what it feels like to you except to know that you’re devastated. It took me a long, long time to take comfort in the fact that people care, and that many are grieving like I am. People reach out to me through my blog, and it helps me through my days. Please stay in touch if you need to; and if you ever want to get in touch, my email is


  4. Unconfirmed Bachelorette
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 16:34:48

    I read someting about writing advice just last night that I think applies to this situation perfectly:

    “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
    ― Neil Gaiman

    Your friend who criticized your grieving needs my boot up her ass. (Yes, I still have a low tolerance for crappy behavior in the aftermath of my own grief.)


  5. Denise
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 18:40:03

    Love the quote; that’s the way I need to listen if I’m being critiqued.

    My teacher is kind; I just think that right now I can’t handle critique because I’m writing to save my life and there isn’t any way anyone can “edit” that. When I’m able to separate a little more I’ll be able to get something in shape to be published. My teacher was looking at my essay from a writerly point of view; but when she talked about changes, it was like she was taking away my story, and my son with it. So see – I’m not ready for that.

    And as far as my friend – that’s over. I have to let it be because if I’m angry, I’m the one who’s going to suffer.

    Thank you for paying attention; it makes me feel less alone. ;o)


  6. tric
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 19:18:15

    Denise you are going through more than any of us can even imagine. One of my friends lost her six year old just over 5 weeks ago. She cries all the time. It is so so hard. She has one young daughter left. She makes huge efforts to try for this little girl. I have no doubt you do the same.
    I commented on your blog previously about something my best friend said to me. Her son is very very unwell and she asked me to look out for her relationship to her other children if the worst happens.
    I shared that with you and I hope, and I hope some more, that that comment did not in any way make you feel any worse than you do.
    I remember when my Dad died and I was in my early 20s. I used to spend more time at my now husbands. The reason was I could escape. I think perhaps your daughter just needs that too. It is what young people do!
    I think a blog is very different to writing an essay or a memoir. It can be way more relaxed and less formal so I would say write away just as you do. I always read it, so it can’t be rubbish


    • Denise
      Nov 24, 2013 @ 22:28:09

      True that! ;o)

      No, you absolutely did not make me feel worse. It’s true – your children need you. I wrote in a post that I took the risk of having children; one died, but one is still here and I’m responsible for her. Philip’s death cannot help but affect everything about me, including the way I am as a mother. Natalie and I are very close; I discussed what X said with her, and she was pissed. And it’s good she spends a night with her dad. She’s not the one who said anything about staying with him more often; he’s the one who told me he’d like that. But whatever happens, I have to accept it.

      I am so sorry for your friend; I cried all the time, too. It was Natalie that got me through, knowing that she needed me as much as I needed her, and thanking God that I had her.

      I appreciate everything you say, and that you take the time to say it. I wish I had something to say to your friend, but I know it isn’t words that she needs. I’m thinking of her with so much love in my heart. I know she’s in a nightmare and it’s going to take a long time to wake up from it.


  7. behindthemaskofabuse
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 19:56:54

    I think you’re an awesome writer, and everyone grieves in their own timing. This person I’m guessing is speaking from a place where they’ve never lost a child. xo


    • Denise
      Nov 24, 2013 @ 22:32:53

      No, she hasn’t. But still…I think she’s angry at me and lashed out, but I really don’t know why. I went to our last emails to see if maybe I didn’t answer, but no; I was the who wrote last, and the conversation was a good one. So I thought.

      But no more time on this, Zoe. It’s Philip’s death I have to deal with, and things like this are a distraction. I dealt with it, wrote about it, learned a couple things, and now it’s time to move on.

      So much love to you xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo


  8. jmgoyder
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 22:54:16

    As a former lecturer in creative writing, I conducted classes on personal essay writing and let me just say that (a) you write beautifully and movingly and (b) anything is allowed – any structure or format. I only ever corrected grammar and punctuation but never the substance of what students wrote from the heart. So I think the ‘constructive’ criticism you received was over the top and very tactless.

    Re X, that is a tricky one but I have been on both sides of this issue of unwanted and insulting advice. I have been given plenty re my own grief situation (terminal husband, injured son) and sometimes I want to smash people for telling me things like it could be worse, you need to get out more, get over it, have some fun, everyone is worried about you etc. etc. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I gave my sister-in-law some advice (well-meaning) and she retaliated furiously so I have had to apologize profusely. I feel sick to my stomach that I gave her the kind of advice I myself would have hated and still not sure why I did it – was trying to help but made a mistake. I certainly didn’t say anything critical (as in X) but it was taken that way – argh.

    I have only recently discovered your blog and I love your honesty and eloquence and grace in talking about your grief. I can’t possibly know how you feel except for the fact that I nearly lost my son a few weeks ago in a car accident and that gave me a glimpse of how it would feel. My heart goes out to you.



    • Denise
      Nov 24, 2013 @ 23:18:08

      Oh, Julie, thank you. I think my teacher was giving “writerly” advice, and she really is a sweetheart. But I’m in no shape for criticism right now because I’m raw as ever from grief. It’s okay – the writing is what matters, and that I keep doing it. How interesting that you lectured in creative writing…

      People are hard, but it’s in our relationships that we learn, no? It’d be nice if all learning were kind and gentle, but it’s not. It’s often through harsh and upsetting situations, like with your sister-in-law.

      I’m sorry about your son, but grateful that he’s okay. I know I say this a lot, but I mean it: every time I hear another child dies, a piece of my heart goes along. Thinking of another parent suffering this…I guess it just brings it all back. I keep wanting to say that no one should have to go through this, but who the hell am I? My wish is that anyone who suffers the loss of a loved one will one day be able to find some peace in their heart where they can rest for a while. And I wish that for me, too.


      • jmgoyder
        Nov 25, 2013 @ 01:07:59

        Oh Denise – I wish that for you too! So glad to have met you – you shine even in the darkness of your grief – you totally shine. Jx

  9. nitasnonsense
    Nov 25, 2013 @ 10:55:57

    Denise as i write i am crying for you. For a person i have never met, and yet because i am a mom, my heart breaks for you and with you. There are only those who have experienced the kind of loss you have, who can truly relate to your pain. I know of a man who lost his daughter 9 months ago and he writes a letter to her every week and there have actually been people who will say this is sick and unhealthy. That he has to let go. REALLLY? what is wrong with these kind of people?.It’s beyond comprehension that a person could ever say that to someone who has lost their child. Whatever you can do to get you through each day, to get you up, and help you put one foot in front of the other, should be thought of as a blessing and not be criticized. I think your writing is wonderful and i wouldn’t change a thing. Just because someone is a teacher doesn’t make them right. You write from your heart and that’s all that matters. I pray Denise that you will find happiness again in life. Your little boy would want you to and he’s always with you. All you have to do is look in the eyes of your daughter and you will see him too because they are both a part of you and always will be. Someday believe with all your heart you will see him again. You’re a good mom. Take it one day at a time Denise, one day at a time. You will find your smile again, and when you’re feeling really sad, look up at the stars, take a deep breath, and know your son Knows the Great unknown, and someday you’ll see him again. Take care virtual friend..sincerely Anita


    • Denise
      Nov 25, 2013 @ 18:57:49

      Anita, thank you so much. I think people try to avoid others’ grief because they’re too scared of what it makes them feel. What a nightmare that first year was; all I did was cry and knit. You do what you can to get through. I kept thinking about my daughter; I knew I had to go on for her, even when I felt that the only thing that mattered was this all-consuming grief. I carried around a book for the longest time where I took dictation from Philip. Any time I pick it up and listen, there he is. Your friend is doing as he needs to. There’s no script here. There’s only unimaginable loss without the language to convey it an nowhere to find any comfort.

      Thank you for all the kind things you’ve said, and my heart is with your friend.


  10. grahamforeverinmyheart
    Nov 25, 2013 @ 13:55:16

    Your post really evoked strong feelings on my part (perhaps because we are in similar circumstances). First of all, your “friend” is completely clueless and insensitive. How dare she say that Natalie is an innocent victim of your grief!

    First of all, Natalie is old enough to understand your feelings and I know that you take her well-being into consideration with all you do. As a mother who lost a child, my grief is compounded by the fact that I am no longer the same mother to my remaining child, that not only has she lost her only sibling, but her parents and family structure are forever changed. She has also lost the one person who shared all of her memories and would have shared the future with her. Knowing that I can’t fix this for her just breaks my heart. I know you feel the same way.

    You are not obsessed with Philip. You have suffered the ultimate catastrophic loss and because Philip was such a deep part of your being, it would be unnatural to NOT write and think about him constantly. This kind of loss is unlike any other. I have experienced much loss, but the only one that is undeniably 100% tragic is the loss of a child. People who haven’t experienced it compare it with the normal losses that we all experience. This is not the same.

    I don’t know anything about what it takes to publish an essay or a book. But I do know that you write from your heart and that you speak directly to so many of us who are also suffering.


  11. Denise
    Nov 25, 2013 @ 19:10:43

    Sometimes people don’t know what they mean when they say it – when my writing teacher said I was “obsessed,” it wasn’t disparaging. And I keep saying this – I do believe she’s a kind soul. X? I don’t know what to say. She seems to think she had Natalie’s best interests at heart, but it makes no sense. I’m very close to Natalie; I showed her what was written and she got pissed off. It’s insulting to be thought of as a victim, though I’m sure X didn’t mean it that way. As you said, Natalie’s old enough to understand at least some of my feelings, and she knows I’m not the same parent I was when her brother was alive. How could I be? But that doesn’t mean I’m kind, attentive and loving toward her. It does mean I carry a grief that I’m sure she’d rather I didn’t. But this is the life given to the both of us.

    Anyway – we have work to do, you and I. We’re in this Holly-Jolly time of year which sort of batters us about the head, reminding us of what we lost. Let’s work to get through this, and not ask ourselves how we’re supposed to do this for the rest of our lives. Which I’m saying for my own self, because it’s too easy to get carried away. It’s just today; we have to do this just for today.

    Thank you for your always kind comments.


  12. Lucia Maya
    Nov 25, 2013 @ 20:20:39

    Denise, thank you for your writing, for all of us who read and connect with you – those of us who are dealing with similar losses, and for the lucky ones who are not.

    A blog post may not be an essay for a literary magazine (though it also could be), but your writing is eloquent, insightful, meaningful, and from your heart. You are a gifted writer, and I know the difference between ordinary and excellent.

    I think about this myself, as I also see myself writing a book, taking our story – my emails and blog posts and Elizabeth’s writing, and weaving it together in a way that could help others…and wonder just how that is going to happen. For me (and perhaps for you?), when I’m in the flow of writing a post, it’s not really ME that’s doing it – I often go back and am surprised at what’s on the page…and what I ask for is to be the clearest channel for what wants to be communicated.

    I think you actually did achieve what you say you can’t do, which is to say some really smart things about all these experiences. You know Philip is always helping, and he’s not going to let you get away with anything less!


    • Denise
      Nov 26, 2013 @ 12:46:07

      When I’m in the flow of writing I know I’m tapped into something more than me. Because I discover things – I’ll write things I didn’t know I knew and surprise myself. And it’s Philip, too; I always ask him to guide my hand, and he always says just keep your heart open.

      The reason I started the blog was to eventually turn it into a memoir. But I started to get antsy, feeling like maybe I can get an essay published. And I’m not saying I can’t. I think, though, that what I learned by taking writing class is that right now I don’t want to concentrate on the form. So I’ll just keep blogging, and start studying some essayists I admire to see how they structure their work. I have my voice, but if I want to be published, I need to work on craft.

      Thank you for all you said. And I’ll be getting to your last post soon as I can take a minute…

      Love you.


      • Lucia Maya
        Nov 26, 2013 @ 16:58:23

        Yes, much the same for me… And trusting it’s the combination of opening ourselves, divine guidance and timing, and how I can serve best. Love you too.

  13. Melanie
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 11:44:31

    For the record, you AND Natalie are my heroes. I just love you.


  14. Denise Hisey
    Nov 28, 2013 @ 11:36:32

    Wow, Denise, that is powerful stuff. Good for you to choose door #3. Philip is proud, no doubt.


  15. Denise
    Nov 29, 2013 @ 13:34:45

    Thank you Denise; would that I could choose once and that would be the end of it…


  16. rconnectus45
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 16:34:24

    No one can tell you how to deal with your grief. People can disagree about writing, but in the end you have to go with your gut.


  17. Denise
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 17:59:45

    So true. And what I realized is that right now, I’m working out Philip’s death, how to live with all this; writing to be published is a whole ‘nother thing and I’m not ready for it. This is all too close to my heart.


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