Author shares the experience of grieving
“It’s been a very interesting revision of me,” professed Canadian author Charlene Diehl to a room of captivated Wilfrid Laurier University students, fans and friends as she presented a reading of her 2010 memoir Out of Grief, Singing.
Diehl’s memoir reflects on her life-altering experience of becoming a mother and coping with the grief of losing her first daughter, Chloe, who was born prematurely. “That incredible little girl lived for six days and then she died and then I had to figure out: now what? It was all unclear to me,” she said.
The first section of her book begins in the fall of 1995, presenting the whirlwind of being diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, a disease jeopardizing her and the baby’s health, and having to deliver the baby the very next day. “I did not realize that I was becoming profoundly ill,” Diehl explained.
Living in Waterloo and working as a professor at the University of Waterloo’s St. Jerome campus during this difficult period, Diehl found her return to the city to address the audience at Laurier’s faculty of arts to be “a weird experience.” Realizing the painful combination of the setting and the context of her memoir, Diehl chose to veer away from the early segments of the book and present the periods of mourning and revival. “The return has been long and surprising and strange and wonderful,” said Diehl moments before turning to a passage.
She began reading a recollection of a nightmare, which would be one of many that she experienced in the first few months following Chloe’s death. While maintaining an articulate voice, Diehl’s emotions were revealed as the audience could hear her suppressing tears as she slowly described the frozen feeling of mourning.
What was visibly the most challenging passage recounted a conversation with her then seven-year-old son Liam whose innocent curiosity required her to explain the decision to have Chloe cremated. “There are many ways to respect the dead, I say to my son, curious and brave in the back seat,” she read.
Although she struggled with the question of “how do you mother somebody that you never really got to hold?” Diehl noted that Liam and her daughter Anna have had no difficulty in understanding Chloe’s place in their family. “It’s perfectly obvious to them that they have a sister that is theirs, which seems to me quite remarkable because they both arrived after she had departed,” she said.
In later speaking to an English class at Laurier, Diehl expressed how writing the memoir, while exposing her personal life to the world, helped her piece together the things she remembered and felt during that time. “Stories about grief are the stories that scare the crap out of us all,” she explained. “I don’t think we’ve made room for these stories to be treasured.”
Finding death and the loss of loved ones to be an expected part of life, Diehl shared that she doesn’t believe in closure but rather making space to carry grief with her. “I don’t feel impeded by it; I feel energized,” she articulated. Moving to Winnipeg in 2000 and establishing a new career away from academics as a director for the international writers festival Thin Air, Diehl was able to tap in to her creativity and document and transform her experience.
Although the memoir was published more than ten years after Chloe’s death, as Diehl admitted to struggling to find a conclusion to her story, she now reflected on the process of overcoming grief, revealing, “It is one of the most important things each and every one of us will do.”