A Room Full of Blossom: Writing through grief

Alison Stewart | October 2018 | 8 minutes

The problem with writing is always where to begin. Living with alcohol dependency can be chaotic and illogical and not easy to fit within the neat parameters a story suggests: beginning, middle and end.

I grew up in a three-bedroom council house with my four siblings and dissatisfied parents. There was no spare money and very little to keep us entertained that didn’t require a great deal of imagination. I’m telling you this because I’m trying to fathom when and why I started to write. Why do we write? I suppose I write to put my thoughts in order and to make sense of the world.

I have this vivid memory of sitting at the dining table with my three brothers and sister while my parents were scrapping with each other in the bedroom above. We heard thudding and grappling and the light fitting above us was trembling. My eldest brother made a joke that my parents would soon crash through the ceiling and land on the table where the five of us were gripping our knives and forks. I described the entire scene to myself in my head.

More than forty years later I still enjoy using my imagination and love of words to navigate through the harsh realities of life, and my brother still cracks jokes. We both developed these survival strategies as children.

A month after losing my husband, Ian, I joined a two-year writing course with the University of Leicester followed by an MA at the University of Warwick. Writing at this level gave me a focus and allowed me to vent emotions without overly exposing my personal life. Trying to write about raw grief and expecting a class to give honest feedback didn’t feel appropriate. I disguised personal experience in fiction and poetry. It was cathartic and rewarding. I created characters and stories that were still authentic and still resonated with an audience, while keeping my privacy and my children’s safe. Subjects such as creative writing, music, art and drama aren’t soft subjects. They are essential subjects.

Even though we struggled for almost a decade, the pathologist was the first and only person to confirm Ian’s drinking problem. He died of a massive hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis on his 45th birthday, when our children were just twelve and nine years old.

I suspect most of my friends would say that I’ve come to terms with losing Ian. But even now, twelve years on, I have to stop while typing these facts. I lose hours to the numbness of this massive truth and I still gasp for air. Imagine your children going through this experience and trying to equip them for a life without their dad. Helping them to understand that he is not able to come back – not even for their birthdays.

Writing helps – but it’s still hard. A professor on my course told me about her own experience of writing something so emotionally charged that she only allowed herself four visits down that deep dark well of traumatic memories. I passed my writing MA with distinction by writing the start of a novel about alcohol. But it took me eight years to revisit the story enough times to complete the novel about a small family who are torn apart by the dad’s dependency on drink.

I finished A Room Full of Blossom last year. It is as truthful as I could manage without writing an autobiography. I will dedicate it to my very lovely Ian who lost his life and left a massive hole in ours. I’m not sure if the topic of alcohol dependency is a best seller or even popular enough to be published – but while someone in the UK loses a loved one to alcohol every hour, I will keep writing about it.

Today, I am preparing to move from our home of the past 22 years and live by the sea. While going through the process of packing I have rediscovered old memories, journals and photos. I took a pile of junk to the tip and returned to my car only to find an old vinyl that had mysteriously appeared in the boot. It was the first record Ian bought me: INXS, Need You Tonight. There is nothing romantic about alcohol addiction – but Ian and these words will be with me always.

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