Pauline Laurent at Vietnow National Convention.

Me in the center, with John and Gale Querry, Howard’s brother and his wife, at the 30th Annual VietNow National Convention, May 2015.

Why I write

By Pauline Laurent

When I was thirteen years old, my mom gave me a five-year diary with a lock and key. It was the perfect time to record my angst as a teen, though I never wrote more than a few sentences, because I was afraid of what my brothers would do if they found it and read it. Little did I know, that writing would one day, save my life.

Years later when I was forty-five and recovering from a suicidal depression and several addictions, I signed up for a writing workshop at my local junior college. A remarkable and intuitive writing teacher asked me to write about the topic I most feared. It was Vietnam.

Pauline Laurent with Howard Querry and car.

I fell in love with the car, as well as the man, Howard E. Querry.

 

I found a quiet place to write outside in her rose garden, and began to allow a story to unfold on the page. Her instructions were to keep writing regardless of any feelings that would come up. “Just keep the pen moving.”

War veterans, fellow addicts, writers, and my therapist were all allies who helped me continue writing and healing. Once I was willing to tell my story, other people showed up to help.

 

Pauline Laurent with Howard Querry.

Our first Christmas together – 1965. We were so happy.

 

As afraid as I was to write about Vietnam, I put the pen on the page, and let it rip. I wrote about May 15, 1968, when two Army sergeants came to my door to inform me that my husband, Sergeant Howard E. Querry, had been killed in action in Vietnam. I could hardly keep up with the words that poured out of me as if the blank page was a sponge that had been waiting for years to soak up the pain. When the bell chimed to return to the group, I wiped my tears, blew my nose, and rejoined the group – determined not to share my writing. It was too personal. I had revealed it to myself, but was not ready to go public with it.

My teacher must have seen me weeping, because she asked me to share what I had written. Something inside me knew it was time to break the silence that had held me prisoner for over twenty-three years. I mustered up the courage, and read to the women sitting in the circle.

The reading was punctuated with tears, deep sighs, and moans – as if giving birth to a child that had been in gestation for too long. I stuck with it until I finished reading the story.

Once I entered that dark cellar of grief, the story took on a life of its own. Writing became the most important thing for me to do every day. I dug out the moldy cardboard box of personal effects that was returned from Vietnam after Howard’s death, and used the contents as writing prompts to keep the story going.

Pauline Laurent wedding.

September 30, 1967 – we were going to be together forever.

 

One day a flyer landed in my hands, advertising a writer’s group for war veterans, led by Maxine Hong Kingston, a well-known novelist who taught creative writing at the UC Berkeley Campus. I was the first widow to attend. Maxine and the veterans welcomed me with open arms.

As hard as it was to listen to their war stories, I welcomed hearing about the war that had taken my husband. That group, which still meets quarterly, was the fertile ground that birthed my book and many others by war veterans.

War veterans, fellow addicts, writers, and my therapist were all allies who helped me continue writing and healing. Once I was willing to tell my story, other people showed up to help. A few months before Veteran’s Day, in 1995, a Vietnam veteran from Boston, Charlie Harootunian, whom I had never met, called to offer my daughter and me a trip
to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in D.C. A Vietnam veteran on the west coast had sent Charlie an article I had written for my local newspaper. I was skeptical about making the trip, but my daughter was excited about going, and I would do anything for my daughter.

I dug out the moldy cardboard box of personal effects that was returned from Vietnam after Howard’s death, and used the contents as writing prompts to keep the story going.

I graciously accepted Charlie’s offer, and began to prepare to visit The Wall for the first time. Charlie said people sometimes leave items at The Wall, so my daughter left a letter, and I left my daughter’s baby dress that she wore home from the hospital. I was seven months pregnant when Howard died, so he never got to meet his daughter, Michelle.

Letter from Pauline's daughter.

Text of the letter Pauline’s daughter, Michelle, left at The Wall for her father.

 

Touching Howard’s name on the memorial wall helped to dispel any denial I still carried about his death. Imagining the grief associated with each and every name on that wall was more than I could bear. The family members of lost veterans were like me, the invisible casualties of the war. We suffered in silence as the Vietnam veterans had done for years until they built the memorial to help themselves heal the wounds of war. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is sacred ground. So many miracles occurred that weekend at The Wall. I came home from that trip determined to finish my book.

Four years later, in 1999, after two edits by professional editors, my rambling, heart-wrenching writings became a book: Grief Denied – A Vietnam Widow’s Story. When I couldn’t find a publisher, and wanted to give up and throw it in the trash, a literary agent came forth who gave me the money to publish a thousand copies. She thought the story needed to be published. I dedicated the book to my daughter, Michelle. On the day I got the first shipment of books, and held my book for the first time, tears of joy flowed. I was proud of myself for telling my story. By this time, I had a beautiful granddaughter, Alexis, who was conceived shortly after my daughter and I returned from The Wall.

Touching Howard’s name on the memorial wall helped dispel any denial I still carried about his death. Imagining the grief associated with each and every name on that wall was more than I could bear.

I started speaking at veterans gatherings, and selling the book online through my web site at www.griefdenied.com. I was shocked to receive so many positive reviews, which came in the form of handwritten notes, phone messages, and heartfelt e-mails from people thanking me for the courage to tell my story. Many widows said they identified with the silence and suffering I described in my book. I was on CNN, ABC, NPR, and the front page of my local newspaper. I taught a memoir-writing class at Fishtrap Writers Gathering in 2001. I appeared on Bill Moyer’s Journal with Maxine Hong Kingston and several other writers from the veterans-writing group in 2007. I was famous for being a war widow – not the kind of fame I would have chosen, but I’m grateful I was given the resources and people to help me heal.

Fifteen years after my book’s publication, I’m still getting invitations to speak about my experience of being a war widow. That’s what brought me to the 30th annual convention of Vietnow, as the keynote speaker. As I prepared to travel to Chicago in May 2015, I realized it was exactly fifty years ago when I made my first trip to the Chicago area where I met my husband. When I spoke at the convention, I felt as if I had regained the innocence of the nineteen-year-old woman who fell in love that summer of 1965.

Writing saved my life. It provided a safe container to speak the unspeakable. It helped me to redefine myself. Writing comforts me, and is my constant companion that is always with me. It never argues with me or walks away in indifference. I am grateful that I can call myself a writer, inspirational speaker, and life coach who facilitates learning and growth for others.

Every time I tell my story, it’s from a different perspective, because as I age and change, the story takes on a different meaning. It’s not just a war story from one widow, it’s a record of one woman’s spiritual journey, and for that I’m grateful.

Writing Grief Denied gave me a purpose and a calling: To help others accept, forgive, and move on after a sudden traumatic loss. Maxine Hong Kingston told me, “You are a true writer.” I asked, “What makes you say that? “Because you process your life by writing about it.”


More About Pauline Laurent and Grief Denied

Pauline and her book have received lots of praise from all corners. Here’s a comment written by a woman who met Pauline at a book signing: “Met Pauline in 1999 when she came to my city for the book signing of Grief Denied. I read about this in our local paper. My husband was killed in Vietnam in 1966 and I had never met anyone who experienced the loss that I had. She changed my life. I went to The Wall in 2000 for the first time because of her, and the healing began. As Pauline says, we were not allowed to grieve; we had children to raise; Jackie Kennedy was our role model; our husbands were heroes we could be no less…denial, denial, denial. So glad Pauline came into my life.”

Headings of other comments (from Amazon): Grief Denied is not only for widows. • Finally, there is someone who speaks my language. • A must-read. Courageous and long overdue. • The truth about being left behind. • Deeply touched my shattered heart. • Tears like rivers were meant to flow. • Rewarding, insightful reading on loss and the human condition.

 

Pauline Laurent.Pauline Laurent is a certified life coach, inspirational speaker, author of “Grief Denied, A Vietnam Widow’s Story,” and has been instrumental in helping survivors of traumatic loss come to terms with grief. Buy her book at griefdenied.com.