In 2012, Karen Crofts and palliative care nurse and local writer, Kathleen Wurth, organised a small writing competition for the members of Hunter Writers Centre. The competition was topped off with a live reading of the top 20 stories during Grief Awareness Month in August. From the outset the response to the competition and the live reading was so overwhelming that Karen and Kathleen decided to extend it to writers farther afield.
In 2014 the competition went national. This was a prescient decision by the Grieve group as entries increased exponentially. Due to rising interest in the competition and requests to include poetry alongside prose, the 2016 Grieve Writing Competition resulted in a 50/50 split in entries across each genre.
The National Association of Loss and Grief (NALAG NSW) was the initial sponsor of the competition and it is that support and cash prize of $1500 for the winning entry that makes the competition significant on the Australian writing calendar. The ongoing success of the competition has resulted in a wide range of ‘not for profits’ and commercial businesses from loss and grief, mental health and funeral providers joining the competition as partners.
One wonders what it is that elicits such creative and deeply emotional pieces of writing from men and women across the age range. Of course loss and grief will affect each and every one of us. But how often do you sit with a family member or friend or workmate and talk about a loss? It seems we shy away from these uncomfortable moments more often than not. We tend to suffer in solitude even when a hand reaches out to us. It is too painful for most. The strictures of our less than empathetic society manifest that aloofness.
The continued success of the Grieve Writing Competition may, in some small but significant way, allow one who is grief-stricken to cast off the black cloak of smothering grief. I know, having spoken to writers who have entered the competition, that many tell of the cathartic effect of writing a story. They do this, not with an eye on winning a prize, but with the sole intention of telling someone their story, hopeful of an empathetic ear.
That was my motivation when I wrote my first piece for the competition titled “The Letter”. As a police detective in the small country town of Narrandera, most of my call-outs at night were to attend a suicide. There is something about the blackness of the night and the emptiness of the vast daylight space that evokes melancholy for some country folk.
Early one morning, a few days after Christmas, I was called from my home to investigate a suspicious vehicle hidden out of sight alongside a rarely used railway line. The usual trepidation that followed me on these call-outs was faithful and heavy. Approaching the small van cautiously, knowing what I was likely to find, I wrestled with the reality that confronted me. I discovered the badly decomposed body of a middle-aged man in the carbon dioxide-filled cabin on the back of his small van. His name was Robert. A crumpled suicide note on the front seat of the van was apologetic but lacking in detail about the unidentifiable corpse in the rear of the van. I did my duty and reported the matter to the Coroner in as much detail as possible. But this suicide was different. I could not unburden myself of a puzzling feeling of responsibility to pay homage to this man. His messy and complicated demise, I’m sure, was not intended to harm me so I held no grudge.
When I medically retired from the Police Force a decade later I joined the Hunter Writers Centre as a way of normalising my life. I had always dabbled in writing but lacked the confidence to reveal my work in a public arena. Almost immediately Karen Crofts and others in the Centre gave succour to my desire and I quickly wanted to learn more. I learned how to express myself in a creative way through writing and talking to other writers.
My story of Robert was not only a way to unburden myself of the grief I felt for him and his family − it was also the best way I felt I could pay homage to this man and his life. Although we never spoke, I felt a closeness to him, albeit from across the Rubicon. For me, the beneficial effect of writing about Robert was immeasurable. I would not have done this without the Grieve Writing Competition.