Harriet Riley

“Secure your own mask before assisting others.” This announcement came on just before take-off on a flight to North Carolina six years ago. I had never listened to those words before even though I’d heard them many times on many flights. This time I did. Maybe that was why I was often short of breath. I’d been feeling so overwhelmed. I needed to secure my own mask. Allow myself to breathe before I helped the others.

The previous eight months had stretched me to my limits. From that early morning in April when I was told that the father of my children had died, along with his wife, in a plane crash. Then my own father’s death came exactly two months later. I juggled the many issues arising from both estates and the increasingly complicated relationships. My ex-husband left behind not only our two teenage daughters, but also two young children with his second wife. Our first born at 18 was his next of kin. I handled all death and estate matters for her. She went back to college, but we had to bring her home after a week because she couldn’t concentrate enough to do her school work. Meanwhile, I was trying to see my father who lived 10 hours away during what turned out to be his last few weeks of life. Through it all, and in the months afterward, I tried to protect my children from any additional pain or hurt. I had not stopped to breathe.

The only way I could cope was through putting my pencil on the page. Because I was already a writer, I wrote constantly through the pain and loss. The writing sometimes felt like the only thing I did for myself. Going to the blank page was an unbelievable comfort. Some days I had to force myself to write and sometimes I had to give myself a pass and go forward without writing. But each time I returned to my journal, I made another stab at breaking through the chill that enveloped my heart. Just the act of putting the words down helped me release some of the pain and feel the feelings.

Fortunately, when my ex-husband died, I was in a writing group. The group and our writing coach also helped pull me through that anguished time. The varied writing prompts helped me break through the silence and stubbornness that kept me from moving my pencil across the page. Each prompt led back to my grief.

As the months went by, my journey took me many places – both alone and with my family. The writing group continued. And every time, I sat down to write, grief and loss was the topic. I felt like a broken record. But my fellow writers kept encouraging me and I kept writing and healing. I learned that it is only by taking the time to help yourself that you can truly assist those around you. Writing lets me breathe.

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