Grief in Real Life and Fiction

My best friend died last October, and I spent 7 weeks taking care of her and her family. I just finished a draft of a memorial for our college alumni magazine, to be reviewed by her husband, so I’ve been thinking about loss and grief. Because we haven’t lived in the same state for — oh, 40 years, I think — I didn’t see her on a daily basis. Our contacts were more along the lines of picking up the phone to chat or convey some noteworthy news or ask for support. So periods of time will go by in which I would not normally see or speak to her, and in these times, I’m not aware of sadness at her absence.

For her husband, though, her death means a daily — maybe hourly — reminder that she is no longer there. He is surrounded by physical reminders, not to mention the rhythms of their daily lives. Our grief therefore has a different pattern.

The first deep grief of my life came in my late 20s, when my father died. It was after a series of strokes over the course of 6 months or so, following a period of declining health. Even so, I felt overwhelmed by the pain of his loss. In retrospect, I believe I wasn’t fully adult, even though I was married and working full time. I could not imagine a life without my parents, their constant love and support, their kindness, their lively intellectual conversations. The intensity of my grief lessened, and then returned. After a while, I began to recognize the wave-like rhythm. I knew that the pain would subside and then rise up again – “This too shall pass.” One of the most helpful things I did was to give myself time. I told myself it would take 5 years to do the majority of the grieving, and as it turns out, I was right.

Mourning my mother was far more complicated because of the suddenness and violence involved. She’d been in excellent health, and the murder/rape was exceptionally brutal. My sister and I had to deal with the criminal justice system — the police investigation, the indictment and sentencing of the perpetrator,  his subsequent parole hearings, etc. — as well as the newspaper headlines and how shocked everyone around us was at the same time as  attempting to negotiate the natural grieving process. Five years wasn’t nearly enough to grapple with the emotional pain. But time and lots of therapy, seeking out healing, slowly loosened the knots, let sunshine into wounded places, and brought me to a place where it felt I would have been if my mother had died naturally.

Time is something we have (if we are fortunate, and even if we’re not, we do better if we live our lives with patience and gentleness for ourselves). But fictional characters may not have it. Stories take place within a limited amount of time. Beginning writers have a tendency to truncate or skim over the grieving process. A character dies, everyone close to him is sad and sometimes angry, then they go on with their adventures, occasionally referencing his loss. Or maybe turning his death into an obsession. Neither depiction is emotionally healthy or honest. Both set examples of destructive, unrealistic grief.

Dead characters, like dead loved ones in real life, persist in the hearts and memories of the survivors. Sometimes these have more power and influence than the characters had when they were alive. This is one of the best reasons I’ve ever heard for killing off characters! Here are some thoughts on how to bring what happens in healthy grief into a fictional context.

Grief is complex. It’s never simple sadness, and the closer the survivor was to the deceased, the more ambivalent and conflicting feelings she will have. Sadness, certainly, but also anger, guilt, even relief.

Grief is not linear in time. As I described above, it comes in cycles. It can be triggered by seemingly unrelated events, and the pain can be displaced to a current character or event. The survivor may not be aware of what’s happening, but with skillful handling, the reader will be.

Grief shades (and sometimes overshadows) future relationships. This is one of the most enduring and potentially disturbing aspects of loss — perfect fodder for torturing your protagonist! When our old dog died last year, I wasn’t even aware that I was looking for his replacement — a dog just like him. Expectations are like premeditated resentments because they can never be truly satisfied. I had the good fortune to not do anything permanent before I realized what was going on. Once I’d given myself the time to grieve for the old dog properly, I became ready to embrace a new one as a personality in herself.

Grief comes back to haunt us at the most unexpected and inopportune times. Maybe that’s because when we’re not attending to our emotional healing, we carry around open wounds. Or that could just be psychbabble. But it makes for some great fictional material!

Grief can be peaceful and comforting. It’s a natural process, and one almost all of us will experience. We humans have the capacity to appreciate what we have lost and to honor the depth of the love we shared with the departed. Even if the relationship is difficult or recent and undeveloped, we recognize the bond, the resonance within ourselves. In fiction, we can heighten the significance of even very brief relationships, then kill off one of the characters. (Think of the impact of Boromir’s death on Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings.) Allowing ourselves to deeply experience the loss of a loved one helps us reconcile with our own mortality, and also gives us a sense of timelessness and oneness with all creation.


The painting is by Charles West Cope, The News From Sebastopol, 1875



Grief in Real Life and Fiction — 11 Comments

  1. (I wanted to comment on your LJ, but it’s friends only, so I have to do it here)

    I lost my mother four years ago, to a short illness, more than thirty years after she dodged death the first time, which helped to come to terms with it, but the grief does not go away. And now I am in a stable relationship and she never had a chance to meet my partner; and he had no chance to meet her; and she will not be there are the wedding, and… it brings up the grief again, and violently so, at a time when it has not been part of my daily life for a long time. (And strangely, the dreams I have in which the world is, for a short while, alright, is because I have my horse again, who was put down five years ago. The hole he left is… differently shaped, but no less deep.)

    So your words about not using death and violence casually in fiction struck deep – grief is such a strong emotion: why would you gloss over it, ignore it, pretend that death did not matter, or play it for laughs/cheap motivation/removing obstacles/showing how cool the character is? Death should matter to someone in the story. If someone came and burnt down my village and everybody I knew and everybody I cared for, I would not join the next band of adventurers, make friends with them, and go off traipsing across the continent. I don’t know what I would do, but… not that.

    • Thank you for sharing your story. I found it deeply moving. I think we human beings have an amazing capacity to walk through terrible times and that we do it better when we are honest about our pain. And even better when we are not alone. It’s true that no one knows exactly how each tragedy feels. But we can open our hearts and reach out to one another, trusting in our innate capacity to heal.

  2. A very moving and insightful blog, Deborah. I often wonder, when watching a show where there’s a high body count, about those side characters-who misses them, whose life will be changed forever by that person being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Recently, over on Facebook, Susan Palwick posted that after receiving too many stories from her writing students that had high body counts, she required them to write a 200 word eulogy for each person that they killed. I love that idea and suspect when her students are done that they might think more carefully about the real implications of violence.

  3. I lost my father when I was younger (4 yrs.), my grandparents have all passed, but I think most difficult was when I lost two of my best friends- one directly after high school, and another just a few years ago. I started reading books on near death experiences, my latest favorite, “Held By The Hand Of God: Why Am I Alive” by Joe Laws and have found great peace in knowing that my loved ones have gone on to a better place and that I will see them again- this gives me great comfort!

    • I’m so sorry about your loss, Becky. I am also looking forward to seeing our loved ones in Heaven one day! Thanks for recommending Joe’s book.

  4. C. S. Lewis observed in A Grief Observed that it felt a lot like surprise — and realized after a time it was all those reminders you mention, each one causing thoughts to trundle off the usual path until — ooops — you realize that one is blocked off.

  5. I have been thinking a lot about this issue, thanks to the book I’m just finishing, the second half of a pair. At the end of Book 1, the narrator kills someone in self-defense — there is no doubt she would have been killed had she not struck back. But at the beginning of Book 2 she feels deep guilt and confusion over what she did, and the guilt lasts throughout, even though she knows she had no recourse. Why I’m commenting on this: one member of my writing group called her a “wimp” because of this. When did honest feelings of self-reproach and guilt become a sign of weakness in fiction? Even Spiderman feels guilt in the comics!

    • Perhaps we have all become conditioned to this because so many books, movies, and TV shows have heroes killing all the time without remorse. There was a book done some years back about killing by soldiers, written by an Army colonel who was also a psychiatrist, which found that most soldiers were affected greatly by killing people (and tried to avoid doing so, even in battle), though a few had no difficulty whatsoever. I assume that this may be one of the causes of PTSD in some people, though I don’t know.

      All of this to say your character is not a wimp because of her reaction!

      • I’ve read a couple of WWI memoirs, among the Manfred von Richthofen, and there’s a general feeling that ‘war is a jolly thing’. One thing that struck me was the callousness with which he talks about death – sure, he’s sorry when he’s losing friends, but somehow it’s no big deal.
        And then, one day, it hits him and he looks back with disgust.