In the aftermath of her beloved husband’s death from ALS, author Ellen LaFleche took up her pen to create Walking Into Lightning, a collection of poetry which emphasizes the sensual and physical losses of widowhood and challenges our current notions of grief. Her interview is a delight to include in our line-up.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: In recent years, I’ve had several friends whose spouses have succumbed to MS, ALS, cancer and a myriad of other devastating illnesses. In every case, they’ve grappled with whether it would have been a blessing to have no time to prepare for such loss—for instance, an accident—versus having too much time and feeling powerless to slow things down. What is your own take on this?
A: That’s a hard question. Sudden deaths often happen because of a drunk driver or shooter, or perhaps suicide or drug addiction, so there must be a lot of anger or guilt in those left behind. My husband was remarkably calm about his fatal diagnosis of ALS. He’d worked for decades with senior citizens as a gerontologist, so he’d dealt with loss and death his entire career, and was for a time on the board of our local hospice. After the diagnosis, we did what I call pre-grieving: lots of talking, planning, and trying to enjoy simple pleasures like watching a baseball game or visiting our newborn grandson. Slow deaths are very hard on the caretakers. And while such a death is hard to accept, there may be some relief that the suffering is over. I tried to honor my relief by not feeling guilty about it, and integrating it into the loss. Processing anger after losing a loved one to accident or violence would be much, much harder for many people.
Q: Did the inspiration to express yourself through poetry come while your husband was still alive or was this after you became a widow?
A: I came to poetry many years before John got sick. When he was in the hospital weeks before coming home to hospice care, I didn’t have the time or desire to write, but I used my cell phone to email myself an idea or image related to what was happening. For example, the IV bag looked like a “goblin’s bobbing head” to me, and that line eventually made its way into a poem. Taking a few moments every day to engage with poetry was a way of calming myself; I knew I would want to tell our story as a way to help others who are grieving.
Q: Tell us about your writing journey prior to the development of Walking Into Lightning.
A: I always wanted to write. I think it was just a natural instinct for me. When I was six years old I wrote a story called “The Sneezing Apron.” Imagine a page of lined paper with first-grade printing and a story about an apron that was allergic to pepper! My grandfather kept it in his wallet for years. I think it eventually fell apart, but that simple act was pivotal to me — the idea that someone could deeply appreciate what I had to say! I had many teachers who encouraged me to write. Before Walking into Lightning, I had three poetry chapbooks published and was honored by winning several prestige prizes.
Q: Early in your career, you worked as a local reporter. How did that influence your growth and organizational skills as a writer?
A: Working as a reporter was great training. I learned how to write for specific audiences, how to appreciate editing as well as criticism and praise from readers, how to organize my thoughts as I was driving back to the office from a meeting I covered, how to view events critically, etc. I worked at a local weekly newspaper and especially loved writing feature articles where I could include descriptions and imagery.
Q: One typically doesn’t think of science (biology) and poetry in the same sentence and yet this was the case for you. How so?
A: I majored in biology (long story), and while I never worked as a scientist, it was wonderful preparation for creative writing. I’m very interested in writing about the body, for example, and biology provides imagery and details that might otherwise not occur to me. For example, in Walking into Lightning, I describe conception as happening under “the fallopian orchard,” an image that occurred to me many years ago while studying the textbook for a class on reproduction.
The scientific method was also great training for professional journalism and essay writing, a way to organize an article as a “hypothesis” and the steps to proving (or disproving!) what I want to say. Sometime, disproving my own ideas, while frustrating, is the best thing that can happen!
Q: How important is to you to incorporate your working class background into your wordsmithing?
A: My working class background is central to my writing. My parents worked for many years in textile mills. My dad would come home with his clothes stained in rainbow colors from synthetic dyes. The smell of the fumes was terrible. He later developed bladder cancer, which is strongly linked to working with dyes. That was a great sorrow for us, and I felt a lot of anger, which is an emotion I rarely feel.
My first chapbook, Workers’ Rites, is a series of narrative poems about the lives of workers: a gravedigger, waitress, cloistered nun, ballet dancer, dowser, etc. We need to honor all workers and their jobs, especially jobs that involve low pay and direct services to people.
Q: There’s no shortage of self-help books on the market about dealing with grief and I’m sure you must have read a number of them. How did these texts help shape some of the major themes you’ve explored in Walking into Lightning?
A: I read a lot of self-help books about grief and had many mixed reactions. It was helpful to know that other people have gone through similar pain. It was also helpful to get tips on finances, etc. Several things bothered me immensely, though. Most books don’t acknowledge the sensual and physical losses that come with losing a partner. The solution offered was a series of tips on how to start dating again. Most books reiterated current clinical theories that grief lasting more than six months is “complicated grief” that might require therapy. I understand this – some people fall into deep depression, for example, or cannot function at their jobs – and can benefit greatly from professional help. But the word complicated? All grief is complicated. There are so many individual factors, and six months is not realistic for a major loss. We need to take our own good time with grief.
Most books focused on the loss of one beloved person. But many family deaths are multiple – think bus accidents, house fires, acts of war, mass shootings, etc. My dad died a month before my husband, and my only sibling died three weeks after. Talk about complicated grief! There was a synergistic effect that rippled through my entire family. I wanted Walking into Lightning to show that grief is supposed to be complicated. I also wanted to fill a gap by including sensual details of a marriage.
Q: Great title, by the way! What inspired it?
A: John was a Midwesterner who loved storms. We met and married in western Massachusetts, and on the very rare occasion when we had a tornado warning, he’d go outside to admire the green tint of the sky! I’d scream at him to follow my daughter and me into the cellar. But thunderstorms were his specialty! He’d stand on the porch and admire the lightning as it got closer and closer. This drove me crazy, oh yes! The title poem is about scattering his ashes into a thunderstorm. I didn’t literally do that; the poem is an extended metaphor about surrendering his cremains into a place that he loved. When my six-year-old grandson saw the book title for the first time he said, “But Mémère, you’re not supposed to do that.” So my grandson and I talked a little bit about what a metaphor is, and that, of course, nobody should ever walk through lightning carrying a metal urn in their hands!
Q: In novels and plays, one either comes up with a plot and then peoples it or develops characters and identifies conflicts which will challenge them. A poem, of course, is a completely different platform. What comes first for the poet?
A: It’s different for every poet. I am very interested in using imagery. My process usually starts with an image around which I can explore an idea. For example, a few months after John died, I was walking into town on an errand. It was the morning after Halloween, and I saw a crumpled white sheet in the gutter. I assumed it was an abandoned ghost costume, and that raised all kinds of interesting thoughts and images. This resulted in a lyric poem about the workings of memory titled “I remember our first Halloween together.”
Q: One of the unexpected elements of the book is the inclusion of poems about the sensual and physical losses of widowhood. What governed this choice for you?
A: I wanted to acknowledge the physical losses of widowhood because most self-help books ignore this reality. Physical loss adds a dimension to grief that many people might not feel comfortable talking about, even to a therapist. After my recent book launch, I received a card in the mail from someone who was in the audience and felt great relief that this aspect of grief was honored.
Q: What were some of the challenges in writing personal poems about marital intimacy while honoring the feelings of family members who knew your husband?
A: This was the great challenge in writing the book. I had to think deeply about what should remain private and what could be shared as a way of honoring what was lost. I relied heavily on metaphor and beautiful images rather than explicit details: definitely not porn and at a level below erotica. If the book were a movie, it would have a rating somewhere between PG and R. This challenge of what to include and how to write about it came from a deep appreciation of our marital privacy and my goal of helping other grievers to know that it’s okay to talk about physical loss. I also thought about loved ones who knew John and told several relatives that is was ok if they didn’t read the book.
Q: How did writing this book help you to heal from losing your spouse to ALS?
A: Every person needs a container for their grief. It could be volunteering, making art, traveling, gardening, etc. Writing was my container, a safe, enclosed place where I could figure out my feelings. I wanted to write poems that offered grieving people the solace of being understood. My therapist said that true grieving requires understanding the lost relationship in all its dimensions, good as well as bad. Writing these poems helped me to do that. Because the loss of my husband was bracketed by the loss of my dad and my only sibling, I was overwhelmed not only with sorrow but with endless tasks to take care of and other people to comfort. All of this during one of the coldest, snowiest winter in memory. I didn’t go through the traditional bouts of deep weeping that many people experience. I hardly ever cried that winter; I was locked in a state of numbness. Writing the poems served as a kind of metaphorical weeping. In fact, there is poem in the book titled “Prayer for Weeping.”
Q: How did you go about finding a publisher who would not only be the best match but also a supportive and sensitive partner to the material you wanted to share?
A: Several of the poems in the book won prestigious prizes, and initially I was very optimistic about finding a publisher or winning a contest that included publication. I came close a few times but didn’t quite make it. It took two years to find Saddle Road Press. A friend cyber-introduced me to Don Mitchell and Ruth Thompson. I couldn’t have asked for a better publishing experience. Don provided amazing design options. He took the sumptuous photograph that appears on the cover. Ruth served as a perceptive and gentle editor. I was going through an unexpected health crisis at the time the book was accepted, and working with Ruth and Don helped me to cope with physical discomfort. We emailed almost every day during the process and shared life events that were happening and interesting stories about our daily lives. It was the perfect blend of hard work and human connection. I couldn’t recommend them more highly.
Q: What advice would I give to creative writers who want to explore grief and loss?
A: Don’t worry about following current theories about grief. Challenge ideas that don’t resonate with your personal and cultural experiences of grief. Make sure to give yourself the time and space to write. This is the most important part, allowing yourself the space to write. Be comforted. Be held. Know you are not alone.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I’m trying to organize another collection of poems. It’s a challenge at the moment because these poems are not thematically related and do not follow a narrative arc like Walking into Lightning; I’m not sure where this project will take me.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Thank you so much. I appreciate everyone who has read these comments. And I’d like to thank all my wonderful friends and neighbors who kept me fed, nurtured, and held during my winter of loss.