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Writing on Water: A father's story of writing through grief

When my friend Tom Santos lost his son, Todd, at age 20 in a fiery motorcycle accident in 1994, he never dreamed he would write a book about it.

In fact, Tom described himself as a poor student and felt fortunate to finish high school. But, 10 years after his son’s death, he still carried a profound sense of sadness at losing his only child.

“Some friends thought I should be feeling better by that point,” recalled Tom, adjusting the black cowboy hat he wore everywhere. “But you just can’t push a button and make the pain go away.”

He shared with me a visit he had with a counselor who told him that what he was feeling, besides normal grief after devastating loss, might be unattended sorrow.

“Perhaps there is something else you need to do, something that really allows you to express your feelings. Grief is like a garden in a heart washed out by a storm. You’ve got to tend the soil and grow new flowers.” Tom remembered the counselor saying. “You seem to have a circle of supportive friends, but are there any details about your son and your relationship with him that you’d like others to know? Why don’t you write me a list of those things, those thoughts that you want to nurture and grow.”

Tom went home and started writing — and couldn’t stop.

“I wrote my heart out,” he said.

Two weeks later he had 200 pages describing his son and what it was like to be Todd’s father.

Not everyone will attempt to work through grief by writing a book, but anyone who has experienced the death of a child, of any age, understands how profoundly difficult it is to ease the ache in the heart.

What writing seems to encourage is to bring the bereaved back in connection with the lost child and get beyond how and when they died. As the writer digs into recalled scenarios, even the gist of conversations may return, at least enough to “feel” the presence of the child again.

The process of putting words down seems to give the writer permission to express feelings. Crying on the page is easier than crying in public. Starting with “if only...” helps to lift the weight of the loss off the heart, perhaps only for a moment, but each repetition seems to release some of the intensity of grief as emotions are off-loaded onto the page.

Sorrow has its own schedule. No one is the same regarding the progress of grief through steps or stages. The transition to better coping may even come as a remarkable surprise.

In one of my writing classes for veterans and survivors, the mother of a young man killed in the war in Iraq wrote that, one day, months after his death, she heard herself laughing spontaneously. “I never thought I’d laugh again,” she said. “And right away I wrote myself a note to remember that I’m surviving, I’m getting through this.”

Other writers have noted that relationships with friends can change after the death of a child. Some people may have difficulty responding to others’ suffering and don’t know how to respond. Some may not even be able to read what you’ve written about your experience.

Tom said that when he first started writing about his son, Todd, he wasn’t sure he could survive. But continuing to write down his thoughts and feelings became like speaking to a listener who was willing to hear anything.

“My son gave me a lot during his short life,” said Tom, during one of our conversations about writing. “He even made me realize I was a good student, after all. I found a new confidence in myself. What more could a father ask for – except to have him back.”

He eventually published a book and became a spokesman about the healing benefits of writing.

Tom Santos, life-long native of Mystic and Stonington, died at age 76 on Feb. 22, 2019, and is remembered with love and gratitude by his family, many friends, and people everywhere whom he inspired to write and publish their own stories. His literary legacy includes two books: “My Son Todd and My Guardian Angel” and “Mystic in the Fifties.”

Ruth W. Crocker lives in Mystic. She can be reached at ruthwcrocker@gmail.com.

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