Originally Posted: Aug 5, 2019
Last Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Tragedy and loss are not easy subjects to broach in writing at all, let alone very public writing that someone else will read or hear spoken. Writing about tragedy and loss certainly won’t be for everyone, so make sure you give it some real thought before you try to dive in and put your jumbled, high-emotion thoughts to page. But if a difficult topic is the one that compels you to write a great admission essay, then it can be done—as long as it’s done the right way. Before we explore the key elements to writing about traumatic experiences the right way, here’s some perspective through a personal story of loss.
The struggles with writing about loss
One spring, there was a rash of suicide attempts at a local high school in my community. Two of them were successful; others were not. The first time I wrote about this loss was for a memorial service. This is the second time. It’ll never be “easy” to write about, just as what happened will never make sense to anyone who knew the victims. How can we use words for trauma and grief in order to make sense of what doesn’t make sense?
One student, in a mature spirit of activism, wrote an open letter to the school district office, which was posted and reposted all over social media until there was a school assembly featuring officials, professionals, and faith leaders open to the whole community. The Parent Teacher Organization gave out green ribbons to raise awareness about depression and other mental illnesses. Most immediately for the teens in my town, the words appeared via social media posts. That was how the students wrote about their loss in the weeks following the first (then six weeks later, the second) tragedy. Some students will write about it for their college essays, and they’ll need help. It’ll be important to them to do a good job, to honor the memories of their friends who passed away, to get it “right.”
To say the least, people had mixed feelings about these posts and reposts; about what should be discussed and how; and how to protect the grieving families from more suffering. It’s a small community, and these were shockingly sad events. The fact is, these tragedies have already fundamentally redefined the high school experience of the students in my town. The ripples might be subtle or pronounced, but they exist. Peers will mark time using these losses (midterms happened before, prom happened after), and the experience will not be forgotten; it’s now part of their life stories.
How to tackle writing about tragedy the right way
Difficult topics can (and should) be broached in admission essays because they are a part of life that can’t be ignored and often play a huge part in defining who we are as people. What I told those students about handling loss with their words is summed up below, and it also applies to writers tackling any kind of special need, medical condition, or family struggle in their college essay.
Be honest and straightforward
You don’t need to have been super close to a tragedy to be affected by it or to write about it effectively. But don’t pretend you were affected in a way you weren’t; you’ll come across as phony. If you’re moved to write about a painful event, there’s a genuine reason behind that impulse. That reason is good enough; figure out what it is. That being said, powerful life events require quick-hitting, direct sentences. Be like Hemingway, my professors used to say—keep your sentences short; they have more punch that way. You don’t need lots of flowery or figurative language to convey that your subject is a big deal—but at the same time, do make sure you’re showing, not telling, in your writing. Connecting emotionally is about expressing that time through actions and events, not just thoughts and feelings.
Find your message with the right words
Superfluous language gets in the way of gravity. Be ready to prune drafts until you feel you’ve found the right semantic fit for the intention behind your words. Your essay also needs a theme, a call, a purpose. The point isn’t simply to narrate a sad story in order to show the reader how sad it is (e.g., your essay’s message is not that teen suicide is tragic); rather, the point is to connect the sad story to the essay prompt you've chosen to address. The event itself essentially takes a backseat to the points you want to make about what it means.
This is really the one ultimate rule, and if you do this, the other stuff can be worked out. In the context of the college essay, respect usually involves approaching your subject matter somewhat anonymously. Names aren’t necessary. If you’re engaging a serious, painful topic—and it involves others—be careful to write as circumspectly and thoughtfully as you can. When in doubt, ask someone whose judgment you trust (like a teacher or parent) to check it out for you.
Seek help for you or others
Is it easy to write about hard realities? Not at all—not in any context, not for anyone. But if you’re brave enough to try, you may find it to be transformative and therapeutic to articulate your experience as you process your grief and begin to heal. And the most important thing to remember is to take those emotions and experiences and use them to help others in the future before other tragedies strike. Writing about these situations can often shed light and inspire others to help people in need, which in the end is more crucial than anything else. If you have been affected by tragedy or are worried about a friend who is struggling, help is available. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255 or a trusted adult.