Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss, and Unlikely Friendship

Writing a book together literally saved our lives.

Our children, Alex and Rachel, had died of drug overdoses. We spent one entire year exchanging e-mails that became the genesis of our book, Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss, and Unlikely Friendship.

Together, we explored the acute moment-to-moment experience of grief while discovering the power of female friendship, trust, intimacy and love.

Our tandem journey through Griefland offers readers an intimate portrait of what tragedy does to the human soul, how it changes lives, and most important, how we can survive it.

What we hoped was, by writing from the deepest trenches of this experience, we might emerge more human, more alive.

The immediate aftermath of losing our children felt like being thrown into the deep end of an icy ocean without a life preserver, then watching as sharks began circling us, their dorsal fins closing in.

This sensation awakens feelings of terror, the awareness that your own life is in danger. We couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.

Our “new normal” without our children made us feel like aliens, strangers in our own skin. We couldn’t sit in a restaurant, go to the mall, or watch a movie.

The holidays were excruciating, but then, so were Mondays through Sundays.

And no one was saying our children’s names.

We began writing for our lives, accumulating more than 1,500 pages of emails describing in minute detail what life had become after our children’s death.

Ultimately, we created 27 essays, each framed with a pair of our e-mail exchanges.

We decided to record the journey after an exhaustive search for literature, looking for anything that might have offered us answers or a balm to ease our pain.

When we found nothing on the book shelves, we decided to write our own book, create a language for loss, and provide a sanctuary to others, who, like us, had endured the pain of loss.

And so, we created a fictitious place called “Griefland.” Imagine landing in a strange city without baggage or a passport. There are no road signs or maps — and the national language is silence.

Now imagine a café in the heart of the city, the kind of place you’ll meet a girlfriend for coffee or a glass of wine. Such was our feeling when we met and talked and realized we had the potential to create a life-supporting bond.

We marveled at the fact we both had van Gogh’s print, Café Terrace at Night, hanging in our homes, a beautiful café scene with tables and chairs, against a starry night sky.

That imagery instantly became a powerful metaphor, our symbol for rescue, comfort, friendship.

To our amazement, we realized we had found in each other a place of safety, where we could truly be ourselves.

We discovered that the only way to get through Griefland is with a friend at your side –- all the way.

We’re talking about the kind of friend who’ll show up without her makeup on, in sweats, soaking wet, with un-manicured nails — the kind of friend who will watch your back, stand guard at the door and let you grieve in your own way, because any way that gets you through this journey is heroic.

So what did we learn from our travels together through Griefland?

  • You don’t have to walk in the dark by yourself. Go ahead, grab someone’s hand.
  • There’s power in the word, “NO.” “No thank you,” “Not now,” “Not today.” Maybe never. Grief deserves time, space, and permission to just be. You deserve unstructured, uncluttered time—as much as you may need.
  • The human spirit rocks with resiliency. Even on the worst days where grief knocks us to the ground, we know there will be another day around the corner where we can begin all over again.
  • Grief comes in a myriad of sizes and shapes. Sometimes it laughs, sometimes it cries, sometimes it stands still, and sometimes it follows you everywhere. It can be a monster or your best friend. Grieving has no statute of limitations and can last weeks, months, years – a lifetime.
  • As women, we are the glue, the center of gravity for everyone around us. This can be exhausting – leaving us feeling splintered, raw. Listen to your body, and before it collapses, put yourself in protective custody by deciding your own fate.
  • Whether you’ve lost a child, a brother, a boyfriend, a mom or dad, or a breast, keep standing with both feet on the ground, even when you think you can’t. The world wants and needs more of you.

The bottom line is this: We’re living in an era of loss. People are losing aging parents, spouses, friends, jobs, homes, hope –- and some, like us, will lose children.

And finally, remember that sometimes we must get lost in order to find our way.

Life is complicated. If we try too hard to simplify the journey of life, we won’t have a journey at all –- just a road trip.

The truth is, life includes loss, and navigating the journey can be perilous at times.

But this we know for sure: having a friend by your side, someone to guide the way, to lean on, someone to hold your hand, can make all the difference in the world.

About the Author

author image

Armen Bacon is a regular contributor/columnist for The Fresno Bee and has a daily radio feature titled, Live, Laugh, Love. For two decades she has served as a media spokeswoman for education. She is a four-year artisan alum from the CSU Summer Arts Program where she studied memoir, poetic prose, narrative non-fiction and flash fiction. Armen resides in Fresno, California, with her husband, Dan.

Nancy Miller has taught English and literature at the university and junior college levels since 1996, and served as managing editor for The Business Journal and Pacific Publishing Group in Fresno for more than six years. She currently teaches freshman composition at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia, Washington, where she lives with her husband, Randy.

Read more from Armen Bacon and Nancy Miller

Sign Up for's Weekly Must-Read

More Posts from Architects of Change