Ten years ago, my life changed unexpectedly. I lost someone very close to me to depression and suicide. From the moment that I found out about their passing, a burden of pain settled upon me, larger than anything I had experienced before or since. In time, although not right away, I turned to writing, as is my habit, in an attempt to cope with the storm of thoughts and emotions triggered by the loss. Bit by bit, I started scribbling into notebooks that would one day become my novel Side by Side, which I describe as a suicide survivor’s story. The protagonist, Kavita, losses her elder brother, Sunil, who takes his life during a period of crisis. The book follows her journey through trauma, grief, and healing.
During the several years it took to write the book, my long-held beliefs about the connection between writing and healing were challenged. Last fall, the book was finally published. Since then, I’ve often asked myself: Did writing about survivor experiences help me? Heal me? Was I able to purge the pain? Am I much the same today as I was when I started?
What I didn’t know back then, however, was how profoundly the loss of my loved one would alter the course of not only my life, but also my writing. Before my loved one’s passing, I never doubted that I would write books someday. Like many of us, I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up; I spent a lot of time thinking about the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. Of all the ideas I’ve had over the years,, I must admit that I’ve never wanted to write about loss by suicide. I’m not sure why — other than the subject matter never occurred to me. Perhaps because it simply wasn’t part of my world, and like many, I never imagined it ever would be or even could be. It seems ironic to me now that Side by Side is the first manuscript I successfully completed. Throughout my twenties, I had made several failed attempts. I would start a project with enthusiasm, but about a third of the way through, I would lose steam and confidence, and eventually give up. When it came to Side by Side, things felt different right from the start. I was compelled by a force I couldn’t quite explain, but once it took hold, I wasn’t able to deny it until the manuscript was finished. While Side wasn’t the book I dreamed of writing, I can see now it was the book that needed to be written.
Initially, I was at a loss for words. For several weeks following my loved one’s passing, I didn’t write anything at all. During that time, I felt so stunned, so unmoored, I thought that I might never write again. In the wake of the tragedy, life itself had lost meaning, let alone writing. Then, at some point, the shock began to wear off, and as it retreated, new realizations took its place. The usual things that slam into people in mourning: I’ll never see them again, talk to them, hug them, hear them laugh. And on top of that heartbreak, the particular thoughts that haunt survivors and their loss like no other: What did I miss? What could I have done differently? How could I not have known? Was it my fault? And on and on….
After a month or so of these thoughts racing through my mind and tearing up my heart, I needed to put them somewhere. My husband picked up on this too, I think, because one day he came home from work with a set of three journals in his hands. All he said as he set them beside me was that he thought I might need them. Then he left me to decide for myself whether it was time to start writing again. I remember reaching for one of the journals, staring at the first blank page and having an overwhelming sense of not knowing where to start. How was I going to translate the monster of grief inside me into words? Give it a voice. Make it physical and real outside of myself. I picked up a pen. I still remember the first line I reluctantly wrote in that first of many journals. The impossible has happened. That trickle of a sentence released a flood.
As my journey through grief continued, I began to see that there was no part of my life that hadn’t been touched in some way by my loved one’s passing. Journaling was a way of not only documenting those changes, but also of giving myself permission to be honest about how challenging life had become in the wake of their passing. It was often too difficult to talk with family, who were struggling with their own grief. I had tried to share with friends, and while they were sympathetic, they had trouble relating to my loss, and I often felt awkward about making them feel awkward. Soon, I began to keep more and more to myself. Next came isolation. Many of my friends were starting families at that point in our lives, yet there I was dealing with the other side of life without peers to commiserate with about the experience. Needless to say, all this contributed to a very lonely period of my life, which would have been far lonelier without the notebooks my husband had given me. He was right. I had needed them, and I had needed writing. When I flew through the first batch of notebooks, he brought me more, and more.
About six months into my grief, I had filled a stack of notebooks with some of the rawest entries I had ever written in all my years of journaling. Around the same time, I had started feeling the urge to read again, and reached for bereavement memoirs. I had recently finished The Year of Magical Thinking. After reading that book, for the first time in months, I felt like I wasn’t abnormal. I was simply navigating through a very particular kind of grief. I remember Joan Didion remarking in her memoir about needing to write her way through the shock and pain of losing her husband unexpectedly. Looking at my stack of journals, I realized I had been doing the same thing, writing my way through the pain. And while I found great comfort in the memoirs I had been reading, the reality was I had yet to come across a book that reflected the particulars of what I was experiencing as a survivor. It occurred to me then that somewhere in the mess and nonsense of my journal entries, there might be a story worth sharing. Soon after, I decided to set out and write the book that I wish had existed at the time. A book that explored candidly the ripple effects of loss by suicide on family life. Writing the book would be how I was going to give voice, shed light, and make place for myself as a survivor, and the others like me, who might also feel marginalized, invisible, and voiceless. The book would be my way of reaching out, like the other authors I admired had done with their stories, and perhaps something good might come of it. Or maybe not. I knew enough about writing to know that there were no guarantees. Still, I felt like it was something I needed to do.
I’ve heard writers speak about the obsession and compulsion when an idea takes hold. Some say it’s like demon that needs to be excised. As dramatic as that sounds, I can relate to the feeling. It took me the rest of that year to complete a first draft, and several years more to revise it into what the book is today.
Writing a book is never easy, but the journey I embarked upon was far more challenging than I could have anticipated. It’s impossible to write about survivor experiences without engaging with trauma, often the deepest trauma of one’s life. Part of the reason it took me so long to complete the book was because, over the years, as I was writing, there would always come a point when I would need to step away. Writing the book took a toll on every aspect of my health, and quite literally, made me ill. This was such a startling experience compared to what I was accustomed to when it came to writing. After all, writing was my coping skill. Writing was what made me feel better. What saved me. I went into writing the book with the same expectations. Suddenly, writing was making me sick and filling me with dread every time I thought about sitting at my desk. Suddenly, I needed to develop new coping skills.
I was completely disillusioned. I thought unburdening my soul would heal me. Instead, I felt far worse than I did when I had started out. Although I hadn’t expected to, I found myself confronting the limitations of writing and the healing that it could offer me, as a person. Still, somehow, I knew that I had to keep going, keep writing. I had to finish the manuscript. Never mind publishing the story—which seemed like the most unlikely of dreams in any case—I needed to finish the draft for myself, to prove that I had at least tried to give voice, shed light, and make a difference, in what small way that I could.
I would revise the manuscript as much as I could, for as long as could, usually three to four months at a time. Then I would take a break, work on other things, and gather my strength. When I felt ready to face it again, I would go back to the manuscript. This process repeated itself, over and over, and probably would have continued in perpetuity if the book hadn’t been published. The obsession and compulsion spurred me on over the years, but also, and more importantly to me, I had developed an underlying belief that sharing the story might make a difference in someone’s life, particularly others who had experienced loss by suicide or who might be contemplating suicide. I had lost my loved one, but if the book could make a difference to one person, change one mind, touch one heart, then it would all be worth it.
Looking back, I think of the writing process as one of release and reimagination. At some point, reimagination took over and I lost myself in the characters and their respective journeys. It wasn’t so much the release or purging of emotion that was healing for me, although I’m sure it had benefits in terms of processing trauma. What really made the difference for me, not only as a writer, but as a person, was being able to live through the story and the characters, as I followed their lives, observed the choices they made, how they used their voices, how they remembered their resilience in the storm, and rediscover meaning in their lives in the wake of tragedy. I experienced resolution vicariously through them and that gave me something where before I felt like I had nothing. For a long time, I wasn’t able to name what that something was. Recently, I’ve been able to recognize it as peace. After writing the book, I felt at peace, perhaps not for myself, but for the characters and their journeys through trauma, grief, and recovery. That, in and of itself, was healing for me. It also occurred to me that if I had found healing in the story, then it was possible that a similar offering of healing might be available to readers as well.=
Since the book has been published, I’ve had the good fortune of hearing back from readers. This is perhaps the greatest thing about releasing a book into the world: when you reach out with your story, and someone takes the time to reach back and share a part of themselves with you. Some have said that the story touched their minds and made them think about the ripple effects of suicide in ways they hadn’t considered before, if ever. Some have said that the book touched their hearts and made them feel empathy for people living with mental illness and their families. Others have told me the book made them feel seen, and validated their hidden pain. One reader told me that reading the book changed their mind about completing suicide.
Nothing could mean more to me than that.
Nothing could be more healing.
Anita Kushwaha grew up in Aylmer, Quebec. Her road to publication included a fulfilling career in academia, where she studied human geography at Carleton University and earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers creative writing program, her first novel, Side by Side, won an Independent Publisher Book Awards Silver Medal for Multicultural Fiction in 2019. She is also the author of a novella, The Escape Artist. Her forthcoming novel, Caught in a Lie, will be published in January 2020 by HarperCollins Canada. She lives in Ottawa.