Local poet processes grief in new book

Posted 8/11/22

Only a parent who has lost a child can know the depth of such a loss.

Still, Sheila Bender has managed to translate both the overwhelming ocean and the process of learning to swim through it in …

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Local poet processes grief in new book


Only a parent who has lost a child can know the depth of such a loss.

Still, Sheila Bender has managed to translate both the overwhelming ocean and the process of learning to swim through it in her new collection, “Since Then: Poems and Short Prose.”

Bender has written almost 20 books over the years across a range of topics including books on writing, memoir, poetry, and even software. Many of the classes and workshops she leads these days deal with the memoir genre as it has grown in popularity.

“I teach a lot of memoir. Of course, I turn them into poets,” she said.

Bender has been a fixture of the Port Townsend writing scene for many years, including a six-year stint hosting “In Conversation: Discussions on Writing and the Writing Life” on local radio station KPTZ. She’s been a distinguished lecturer in poetry and spirituality at Seattle University and her experience has brought her as far afield as Italy where she taught students from a villa.

Bender has not only taught workshops in person, but has been leading the way in the online field since long before the pandemic.

Back in 2004, before Zoom was even invented, she started offering online writing classes through her website WritingItReal.com, which you can still sign up for today although in a much more advanced form than those original email chains.

“I just want to work with people I can help without giving them grades,” Bender said of why she moved out from classrooms like those she taught at Peninsula College in Port Angeles in favor of the more personal workshop space.

Her newest collection moves through four sections somewhat like the stages of grief she’s moved through since her son’s death in a freak accident in 2000.

He was 25 years old, living out his dream of becoming an architect, and set to be married in five months.

The initial shock of his passing is captured in her book “A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief,” while her newest work takes a longer view encompassing the 20 years she has survived with the loss.

Each section opens with a letter written by Bender to her son on either his birthday or the anniversary of his death.

The first of these recalls what it was like to go through the process of designing the home she now lives in with him while he was only 17 for a school project, and what it is like now as Bender spends her days seeing him in the details of her home.

“On the anniversary of your birth, I look (as I often do since your death) at a photograph of you at five wearing a yellow hardhat you had selected as your prop for the kindergarten class photo. I look at the corners in this house you designed, the wooden trim, the windows as plentiful as the building permit allowed.”

In the book, Bender quotes author Anne Lamott who describes the grieving process by using the metaphor of “a broken leg that never heals perfectly… but you learn to dance with the limp.”

“The home is like him. One of the ways I dance with the limp is by living in it,” Bender said.

While she mentioned that the classic stages of grief as they are known today can help to identify the main trend of a particular time or emotional state, she made clear that these were not states one moves through and is finished with. At different times in different ways, they still come back.

“Someone you lost kidnaps you from time to time,” she said.

In the two decades Bender has had since her son’s passing, there have been other losses in her life, each uniquely difficult in its own way, but none as profoundly shocking.

“After sudden storms / blue skies, amusing white clouds, / but sad leaves still fall”

Like the above haiku, Bender continually works through her emotions using the natural world around her as a metaphor to capture and release them.

“My hope for the book is that it will reach as many people as will hear it… reach the people who want to have the conversation,” Bender said, making it clear that this difficult subject matter can only be approached by those willing to go there.

She’s aware not everyone wants to cry all the time, but with her experience and words firmly held within the pages of this book, it’s as though a friend who’s been there is waiting on the shelf, ready when the time is right.

Interested readers can find copies of “Since Then” at Imprint or online through Bender’s website where they can also sign up for one of her writing workshops at writingitreal.com.