TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Write This Down

A few days ago, I opened a purple, college-ruled composition notebook, noted the date on the first page, March 23, 2020, and launched into what I am calling The Coronavirus Journal.

“What else to call it?” I began. “We are living through one of the most cataclysmic moments in the history of man, or so it seems. Could the wackiest sci-fi writer have come up with this? Could it really be as bad as they say?”

And so, in the days, weeks and months to come, I will attempt to record and explore this time from my own very narrow perspective. Allow me to suggest that you do the same.

You’ll probably feel better if you do. I’ve journaled sporadically for decades, mostly as a mental health tool, to try to slow riotous thoughts and pour out difficult feelings. Putting pen to paper, without self-editing, is an efficient way to cling to sanity and blow off steam. For example, on Day Two of my pandemic journal, I was in a pretty dark place and it helped greatly to acknowledge that in my scribbling. One of the things I learned is that I really need to back off CNN for a day or two.

It is also an exercise that grief therapist Patrick O’Malley and I strongly recommend in our book “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss.” Patrick has come to know, through his own experience and those of his clients, that there are really no predictable steps and stages to grief. Instead, he says, the intensity and duration of our sorrow is commensurate with the depth of our love for the person we have lost. Journaling about that unique relationship, exploring that story by writing about it, can thus help us understand bereavement, and much more.

I remember a conversation I had during the research for the book with Dr. Rita Charon, author of “Narrative Medicine: Honoring Stories of Illness.” Charon, of Columbia University, is also the founder of narrative medicine programs —   intentional efforts by physicians to hear and understand the life stories of their patients — that have taken root in hospitals and medical schools around the world.

In our talk, Charon described how she explored her own grief over the death of her father by writing about it.

“I could describe my father’s death with dates and times, what medicines he was on, who was with him when he died. …That’s one way I could tell the story,” she said. “I could also tell the story of my father’s death by starting with the first memory of him, when I was a year and a half old and he was in the Army. He had me on his shoulders because we were at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. That’s very different, isn’t it?”

She called it “creative writing.”

“When I say, ‘creating writing,’ I mean writing for discovery. If I was not trying to write creatively, I might not have remembered this experience of being a year and a half old. I would not have known that was going to come to mind. And what comes to pen is not always what comes to mind. (Italics mine.) People read what they have written, and they say, “I had no idea I was going to write that.” This is standard. That’s the kind of writing that would help people in grieving or anything else.

“In a way, [this kind of writing is] not really about grief; it’s about life. … It’s about experiencing one’s present and past deeply.”

If ever there was a moment worth exploring in this way it this one. Consider this. No one experiences the pandemic exactly the way you do. We are each the protagonists, the heroes of our own stories. As such, they deserve to be captured and commemorated.

What has happened to you and your family? What are your fears and other feelings? What about this has been most difficult? How have you coped? How have you failed to cope? Have there been hidden blessings? Once the pen begins to move across paper, again, without self-editing, I think you will be surprised at what comes out. I can attest to the truth of Charon’s words, “what comes to pen is not always what comes to mind.”

So yes, I think journaling will have real mental health benefits for us now. But I also think of the grandchild or great- grandchild who happens across our words in a dusty attic long in the future. They will no doubt have heard of the great coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and will treasure your account of it. They will know you by what you wrote.

Our journals of this time will be full of fear and sadness and inner darkness, illness and worse for too many. But this moment will end. When it does, it will be very meaningful to be able to look back at our stories and to be able to read, in ways large and small, how we have persevered.

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