Standing before a roomful of people grieving the loss of loved ones, Carol Henderson hands out journals and an assignment.
She asks these folks, all suffering, to write about the most painful moments of their lives.
“Writing saved my life,” she reassures them.
“I let them know right away, I’m one of them,” said Henderson, a Chapel Hill-based writer, teacher, and mother of a son who died six weeks after his birth.
Beyond that brief introduction, given to provide the group with a sense of safety and community, Henderson’s grief-focused writing workshops are mostly devoid of talking.
For 2 1/2 hours, grief-stricken husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, siblings, even pet owners, write quietly about pain and loss.
Henderson’s writing prompts are provocative:
Write about an object that belonged to your loved one.
Write a letter to the person you’re grieving.
For three Saturdays this spring, Henderson, 63, is offering her “Writing Toward Healing” workshops in the Triangle.
The workshops, which are free and open to the public, are geared toward “any adult grieving the loss of a loved one,” Henderson said. “It (the loss) can be 40 years old. It doesn’t have to have happened yesterday and it doesn’t have to be a child.”
Though painful, and often accompanied by tears, the writing sometimes goes beyond what participants might be comfortable talking about, she said.
“I want people to get into their writing. Different things happen. We go places we don’t normally go when we talk,” she said.
Don’t let a fear of writing keep you from participating, she says.
“A lot of times people come in and say, ‘I can’t write. I’m not a writer.’ My response is, ‘You can write if you can talk.’ I try to encourage people to have a conversational air … to write like you’re talking to a friend.”
As the morning progresses and participants grow more comfortable, Henderson sees their confidence grow.
Writing about Malcolm
Henderson knows firsthand she’s asking a lot of her workshop participants.
Her first child, a boy named Malcolm, was born and died in 1982. Henderson, a writer by trade, filled several journals during his brief life, but many years passed before she came back to them. One morning, while working on a book intended to be a collection of humorous essays on raising children, she found herself writing about Malcolm.
“What just started pouring out of me was the story of Malcolm. I would just sit there and write and weep.”
Malcolm’s story eventually turned into a book, published in 2001: “Losing Malcolm: A Mother’s Journey Through Grief.” A second book, “Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers,” followed in 2012.
A former freelancer for the Chapel Hill News, Carolina Parent and other publications, Henderson still writes, but most of her time is focused on writing workshops she gives across the country.
She eventually went on to have two daughters, now 28 and 31. She also has a grandson. “Finally, there is a little boy in my life.”
Her book of funny essays, by the way, never materialized.