By Malkie Gordon Hirsch
My identity will forever be tied into the life events I never could’ve imagined happening.
At my age, 42, life is going at a predictable pace and it’s easy to foolishly think you know what’s up. Funny, how you think you know your life, your plan, your mission, but really you can have no idea. It’s a good lesson to keep the heavy lifting of managing everyone’s life to G-d because we are certainly not equipped to handle such things.
This thought hit me hard as I received yet another comment from someone I don’t know about a column I started writing about grief, when in my pretty ordinarily predictable life, I thankfully knew nothing about that subject prior to Moshe’s passing.
I also didn’t know how to write, believe it or not (other than recipes), and I just started it one day because I needed my feelings to go somewhere. Little did I know at the time that this is actually a potent and empirically valid form of therapy. In my therapeutic process, I would come to understand the idea of narrative externalization: taking the story out of my heart, my nervous system, my memory, and expressing it on to some external media, cuing my own mind and body that it’s safe to slowly start trying to process and release the pain.
So now, thanks to my identity crisis of being a young widow, I also developed a skill I never expected to have. But I wondered: was it there all along or did it develop because of the weekly introspection I practiced? Was it a latent talent or a cultivated skill?
There’s something to be said for being born into a family of writers and naturally knowing how to be expressive on paper, but would this ever have come about if not for Moshe’s death? Personally, I don’t think it would have.
I always speak about finding the beauty that comes about from the most tragic of circumstances, and I personally count finding my voice on paper as one of those things. There are countless studies done on the benefits of writing—namely, expressive writing reducing the effects of stress and trauma. It also brings clarity and promotes happiness. It improves mental sharpness as well as emotional and psychological intelligence. It also helps you discover how you feel about matters through formulation.
The parallels between expressing oneself on paper and healing from a trauma are closely related and it’s not something I know because I’m the type who’d enjoy researching that. It’s simply because I see how my life has improved infinitely since I started writing, and despite the reason I started in the first place. But beyond that, there’s proof that many people who have utilized this method of expressiveness feel better faster and gain the type of clarity they never anticipated finding.
In the beginning, writing satisfied the need to emote and be understood. I didn’t think that people fully got what a loss of this magnitude does to a mother and wife, sister, daughter and friend. What it does to the family dynamic, and how grief has no expiration. I don’t know exactly why it felt so important to me to explain that to others, but it did and they listened.
It took at least a year and a half to realize that I wanted to write about something else. I wanted to see if maybe I was more than a one-trick writing pony and could express myself in happiness and humor instead, or in my own quirky way, which I hadn’t been able to do for some time.
As weeks went by, I’d try new topics and realize with joy that there were many dimensions to my writing. It wasn’t just about sadness anymore. It could be about whatever I was feeling or learning, and the best part was that the people reading about this journey wanted to read about the happiness, bad dates, and parenting foibles, too.
I became more than just that girl who could make you cry. Maybe it was making you feel and laugh and think and relate as well. The comments were coming from more than just the women who’d been through what I had. It was from people I had known from my community whom I had little to do with. My sons’ teachers. My backyard neighbor, a woman with whom I have had one previous conversation about a broken fence, stopped me in the grocery store last week. The man who administered my COVID test, and people from all over who I’ll likely never meet but who have been affected by reading what I write.
As I was sitting in my friend’s store last week, a woman sat there for a while as I made small talk with her friend. She piped up before they left about how much she enjoys my column. It took me a moment to register that she was talking to me about my writing because this new identity hasn’t quite caught up to me yet. I’ve been known for various things in my adult life—mother, baker, resident Instagrammer who enjoys sharing stories on her day. But writer? Me?
I write my articles on my Notes app because I don’t want to feel intimidated or pressured into producing something people might enjoy reading, so the tooling away on my phone that might look like I’m texting friends is often the column you’re reading now. I’m so unsure of how this happened that every week I wonder if this is the week it’ll no longer be something worth reading.
As it happens, I touch something in a vast variety of people. Maybe it’s the realness, the honesty. Or the idea that I’m just trying my best at life, even when it’s really hard, and that impacts others and causes them to want to try, too. I don’t know what it is, but like a lot of things that have happened in my life, I’m OK not having the answers. I’m OK with it happening organically and allowing the thoughts racing in my head to have a home. Sometimes it won’t be anything groundbreaking. Sometimes it’ll just be my recent musings, my emotional journey, the regular day-to-day struggles and observations that many others find they have, too.
The only difference is that I’m willing to share it all without too much self-consciousness about how it reflects on me. It’s liberating to practice a type of freedom I thought I wouldn’t have for years.
The good news is that anyone can learn how to write. At first, it’s shaky and uncertain, this new form of communication with self, and potentially readers. As you go, this mode of expression becomes clearer and more confident, and you start appreciating it more. It becomes a part of you, like a limb you can’t imagine being without. In it, you find new insights, skills, personal growth, and a deeper understanding of who you are and what you want to be for others. Possibly the best and most unexpected shift in my identity happened right here, in the narrating of my story.
When I hear from people about their appreciation for what I write, I smile and say thank you. This, more than anything else, is what inspires me to open my Notes app and start typing my next article.
Malkie Gordon Hirsch is a native of the Five Towns community, a mom of 5, a writer, and a social media influencer.