Shawn Hitchins turned his grief into an achingly beautiful memoir after two former partners passed suddenly
The Light Streamed Beneath It is a heartbreaking yet hopeful story of resilience after insurmountable loss
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
"I have written for many reasons," says Shawn Hitchins, author of the new book The Light Streamed Beneath It: A Memoir of Grief and Celebration. "For social clout, because people have paid me, because I wanted to make people laugh. This book is the first time that I've had to write myself out of a situation that was directly for me."
That situation was one of emotional intensity few of us could imagine: Hitchins experienced the sudden deaths of Matt and David, two of his life's great loves, five months apart from one another. And he has poured that journey into the pages of The Light, an astoundingly beautiful book that offers readers a heartbreaking yet hopeful story of resilience that ultimately celebrates life — even if it does so in the shadow of insurmountable loss.
Hitchins first considered the idea of writing the book when, in the midst of his grief, he was reading The Body Keeps the Score by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk.
"I was having intense flashbacks and was like, 'I've got to get ahead of this,'" Hitchins says. "And van der Kolk says the hardest thing for anybody in a traumatic experience is to build a timeline."
So he did.
"It wasn't necessarily a cathartic experience," he says. "It was more me losing my sense of time. And if you took the book sentence by sentence and you cut it up and you threw it in a bag and then you shook it like hell, that would be how I was perceiving time. So I had to reach into that bag, pull out something and say, 'What, who, where, when was this?' And then assemble a timeline."
At the time, Hitchins felt he was starting to "lose the essence" of the men he had lost. He felt like he needed to capture them as quickly as possible.
"You start losing the sound of their voice; you start losing the details of them," he says. "So it was to have them sort of preserved for me as a place that I can go to. And also a place where I can share them with other people. That was sort of like an archival process, which is also part of grief — to capture your dead, in a way."
As the book makes it's way into the world, Hitchins says he is no longer really inhabiting his grief.
"Sometimes it will still dropkick me, like I'll hear a song or something," he says. "But I recognize when it's coming on. Like I've never smoked in my life, and if I all the sudden I'm craving a cigarette, I know that, 'OK, maybe you need to go have a nap.' Or if I smell David's cologne out of somewhere, that's a 'you should go have a sleep or you need to meditate or you need to stretch or you need to go on a bike ride.' So it's all managing it."
He's also quite anxious about the idea of people actually reading this book that has been years in the making.
"Oh, it's terrifying," he says. "Like, imagine if you went on Twitter and just said, 'Oh, I believe, I believe in God.' Right? That's the world in which I feel it's coming into. And for someone to actually sit with how I experienced that and how I process that as a queer person and what it means to actually claim symbolism and metaphor... I'm afraid that people are just going to be dismissive of it."
Ultimately, Hitchins hopes his words save even one life.
"That's more than I could hope for," he says. "I would like for it to be a way into conversations that we are divorced from, that we are so separated from because it's way too painful."
"I think there's a lot of work that we have to do, specifically in the gay community. There's so many single stories and you can't just write one story that's going to fill those gaps or start reconstituting our lives and our experience. So I hope that it inspires other people to put their story down on paper, and I hope that we really start addressing our emotional lives and our emotional experience, rather than what recorded history allows us. Which is basically just achievements, but like — what is the actual experience of our lives?"
The Light Streamed Beneath It: A Memoir of Grief and Celebration is available for purchase through ECW Press.