“If you haven’t lost somebody yet, you will. Everyone dies.” –Leslie Pietrzyk
Grief is something that everyone experiences more than once throughout their lives and often encounter some type of grief of varying severity on a daily basis.
When grief introduced itself into the life of Leslie Pietrzyk, she took a different approach in that she decided to acknowledge her grief, and then to share it with the rest of the world.
Pietrzyk (pronounced P-trick) lives in Alexandria, Virginia and teaches a writing program at Johns Hopkins University. In 2015, Pietrzyk was the winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Award for short stories. UMBC hosted a reading for Peitrzyk on Tuesday, Oct. 3 in the university library.
When Pietrzyk’s husband, Rob, was thirty-seven years old, he unexpectedly suffered a heart attack during breakfast and passed away, leaving Leslie to maneuver the world of being a young widow. Twenty years later, she stood in front of an audience of university students and faculty to share her grief.
Her book, “This Angel on my Chest” includes numerous short stories, all of which feature young widows. She weaves fact and fiction together throughout the stories in the book. Pietrzyk asserts that she challenged herself to include one truth about how she coped with her grief in each story, although the coping mechanism may not always be what is immediately obvious in each story.
During her talk at UMBC, Pietrzyk read a story from her book called, “The Quiz,” in which she presents different scenarios a woman might face and how through options A, B, C and D, the woman should always pick D – the answer which includes informing anyone around her that her husband died unexpectedly at a young age.
The audience was full of quiet people, all of us unsure how to address the sensitive topic of loss and love, and how they so frequently intertwine. Perhaps sensing our anguish, Pietrzyk addressed the audience with some insight: “You can’t always predict what’s going to be painful.” She assured us that given the many years since her husband’s passing, she was open to hearing our thoughts and questions without the possibility of her breaking down.
After her reading, there was a brief question and answer platform. I asked Pietrzyk if writing was the thing that helped her. Pietrzyk responded: “Writing is the thing that has helped me through my life. Writing always helps me.” But she clarifies that this therapeutic writing manifests in different ways. Writing in a journal daily about her feelings was helpful in a way different from writing a novel, which she wanted other people to read.
Pietrzyk’s book and her experience are sensitive, strong, sad and brave. Her way of measuring up to her grief is extraordinary, and while she is right that we all will lose someone to death, she is also right about how we can practice our own therapeutic ways of coping with this grief, such as writing and being honest about our feelings.