GRIEF Explored in a Cluster Map

Two-tone, double-exposure, moody image of a person sillouetted in profile and water droplets and reflections

Let’s talk about the street corner of the heart where romance novels, daily life, world events, and grief set up shop. This is not the safe part of town. And yet here we can find what we need to renew life… if we dare.

My favorite romance novels break me in tandem with the main characters, show me what’s required to mend, and include me in the surgery, such that I feel it all and come away with improved self-love and relationship skills impressed into my brain ruts. The gift of story is felt experience gained through entertainment.

Since romance novels include happy endings, when we read them we also onboard examples of hope fulfilled. The trick is to carry that hope into our daily lives after the story ends, especially when world events cloud the mind, wound the heart, and obscure the way forward.

The bell on the shop door jingles as you enter. Grief saunters in from the back room. Great posture. Holds eye contact. Knows you know you need to be here. And you do. Brave of you to open that door.

As with otherfeelings, grief can become a bigger issue when not allowed expression in the body. When you remember betrayals (yours or theirs), people lost, chances missed — all your micro and macro grief events — how much of it has been put to rest? How do we lay more of our burdens of grief to rest to make room for today, tomorrow, hope, awareness of lessons learned, and the prodigious capacity of humans to find creative solutions?

Grappling with such questions led me to the page (as usual) and the aid of a cluster map. As a processing tool, cluster maps give form to thought jumbles and feeling blockades, connecting ideas in strings of bubbles to reveal, inform, and clarify. This cluster map about grief surprised me. Usually, my cluster maps take shape in a flurry of wishing I could write faster. For this GRIEF cluster map, the words and shapes came slowly, with long pauses in between.

The word GRIEF circled in the middle of a lined spiral notebook page, with lines and circles with handwritten text in them radiating out from it

Only two branches stem from the central concept (it’s just too much and the stages of grief), which is also unusual for me, but by the time the page filled I was just getting started, as if the rich topic of GRIEF could spread onto a page as large as the room. However, that one spiral notebook page was helpful enough. I remembered, via idea bubble, that it’s possible to trust my body more and my mind less in order to heal, that grief and humor can be friends, and that acceptance is key.

I recently came across this sentence in a journal entry from September 2021 (it came through me from a bigger-than-me place): Drama is a distraction from acceptance. In romance stories (and in life), heartbreak and spectacle often attend the passage through stages of acceptance, through the process of learning to love from the inside out. We start where we are. We hope. We dare. We try.

Listen, this crap is difficult. It hurt the first time, and I’m not done yet? But any part of us stuck in the past keeps us from lighting up the present. We are not our trauma or our grief or our pain. And yet the messages in those experiences contain information pertinent to our thriving in the present.

Every time I have processed a grief (I’ve been doing this for years, usually tucked into my closet with notebook and pen, a box of tissues, and a sore heart, scared but determined), I’ve gained a sparkling gem of a lesson. The lessons wait for us to attend to the mining required. Those gems are never what I expect, and they always deliver a more holistic perspective of the experience grieved. Every time. When I persist in remembering that feelings are finite, my body wants me to heal, and expressed feelings deliver gems — I am willing to dare to grieve and release.

What do you need in order to accept and embrace your grief so you can be united with its lessons and your bright self? Maybe a call to your insurance company to find out if therapy is covered so you can get support. Maybe a box of tissues kept on the floor of the closet. Maybe a conversation with a dear friend who adores you even when you’re dripping snot onto your upper lip. Maybe a stack of romance novels waiting for you as a reward, to remind you that you can count on hope.

Be safe, honor your needs, but find a way.

Love is the answer. When we get real and feel, we rise together. For examples of this, for inspiration and courage, dip into your favorite romance novels.

Alice Archer is the author of Everyday History and The Infinite Onion, thought-provoking romance novels for strong hearts. You can subscribe to her newsletter to receive a free story, notification of new articles and books, and more.

Read more: BEING SEEN Explored in a Cluster Map, What Is Literary Gay Romance? A Definition in 5 Points

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Alice Archer

Alice Archer

Author of thought-provoking love bombs for people who don’t mind crying in public. Archer’s romance novels feature hard-won happy endings for strong hearts.