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Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 26, 2010

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WARNING:  This is a no-edit zone…


When someone close to us dies we are profoundly impacted.  Our emotions are in riot and things surface that we didn’t and couldn’t anticipate.  We react differently.  We all grieve, that’s humanity at work, but we grieve differently, too.


Some are inconsolable and open about it.

Some are private, grieve quietly, alone.


Some open their hearts to comfort and consoling from anyone.

Others close themselves off, share nothing and accept nothing from anyone.


Some celebrate the end of pain and suffering, going home to Heaven where there is no more grief and/or sorrow.

Some mourn to the depths of their souls, devastated and despondent.


At funerals, it isn’t uncommon to hear laughter.  To some the sound is a reassuring, soothing balm. It’s life affirming.  To others it’s an arrogant sign of disrespect, an inappropriate abomination.  And still to others it is a normal, if unfortunate, nervous reaction to intense stress.


Which raises the point:  Do all of your characters react the same in these situations?  Or do they react differently, based on influencing factors?


What influencing factors?


There are many, but a few dominate ones are:

.                1. The way they were raised.  Under duress, we revert to the familiar.  If we associate wailing and demonstrative displays of emotion with death, then we’re apt to react in that manner–or, if that’s not in keeping with our individual personality, to still consider it normal because it is familiar.

.                2. Their belief system.  Some people and cultures cry at births and celebrate deaths.  Others are the opposite.  Many both celebrate and mourn deaths.  Celebrate for the individual who has gone home and mourn the absence of their presence in the lives of those left behind.

.                3. The relationships between the characters and the deceased.  Obviously, the closer the bond, the more intense the reaction, whatever that reaction might be.

In my mind, those are the three major influencing factors.  There are a multitude of minor ones, such as:  whether or not the death was expected.  If it involved a long drawn-out illness, there’s an element of relief that the suffering for someone beloved has ended.  It if was sudden, without warning, there’s shock and a period of being stunned to endure.

Our emotional reactions tend to drive us during times of intense stress.  And that reaction differs greatly according to circumstance.  If someone we love is murdered, outrage is part of our reaction.  Anger that burns deep.  If someone we love stumbles down a flight of stairs, shock is at work in us.  If someone we love dies a natural death, our reaction is far different.

Circumstance drives the emotion, and awakens certain aspects of itself inside us.  We will miss that person.  We think about our history with them, our common bonds and interests.  We might feel lost or hopeless or helpless.  We might feel confused or betrayed at being left.   It all depends on us; where we came from, where we are, and how we cope.  What we believe or don’t believe, what happened, and whether or not in the grand scheme of things we can make it make sense to us.

Sudden, unexpected deaths are particularly challenging.  A few months ago, my aunt discovered her daughter dead.  She’d passed during the night without a peep.  That was devastating, of course, particularly since that same aunt had just soon before buried her sister.  But her sister had been ill; there was warning.  She’d lived a good life, seen her children raised and her grandchildren grow.  My aunt’s reaction was very different to the deaths of her sister and her daughter.  And then just days after her daughter’s death, her daughter’s son was hit by a train and killed.  Totally unexpected.  Cut down so early in life.  Everyone worried that this would be the knock-out blow.  The proverbial straw that broke her.  And yet it didn’t.

She was sad.  She grieved, but she’s endured.  She’s held on.  For her, peace is found in faith.  She trusts there are reasons that pass her understanding, and turns to God for comfort and peace.  And she finds them.

Others would react differently.   Even age can be a factor–in the deceased as well as the character reacting to the death of the deceased.  A twenty-something character might look at someone, say fifty, who has passed and say, “She lived a good, long life.  Someone forty, looking at the same deceased individual might say, “She went so young…”

Perception is all about people.  Not people in general, but specific people reacting to specific deaths.

One last example–an extreme:

A forty-year-old man dies.

His mother’s reaction:  “Thank God.”

We think, that’s an odd reaction–and it is–until and unless we look at the son’s death from the mother’s perspective.

Maybe the son had been terminally ill and suffering immensely.  Watching a child suffer is torment, agony.  Seeing it end is a relief, no matter how much the mother loves the child and yearned for him to be well and strong and healthy.

Maybe the son was Ted Bundy or someone like him.  And so long as he lived, she was terrified he would kill again and again and all those poor victims haunted her.  Maybe in his death she found a peace in knowing there would be no more victims.  Maybe she grieved and mourned and regretted all her soul could bear and only in his death found freedom from constant terror.  From guilt because she had, after all, brought him into this world.  Just or not, that guilt is a human reaction and all those telling her it isn’t her fault doesn’t make her feel any less guilty.  Her head knows she didn’t create victims.  Her heart knows she created the victim-maker.  So just or not, she feels responsible.

Logic too is in perspective–for the character and that includes perception being clear and understood on the part of the reader.  That, too, is my point.

Initially, we don’t see the logic in a mother being relieved at her child being dead.  But put into perspective, we understand.  We might agree or disagree, but her logic is logical for her in her situation and from her perspective.

So if you’re having all your characters react the same way to death or to any intense emotion or when under extreme duress or high-impact stress, you might want to think on the matter a bit.  Would this specific character react to this specific death in this specific way at this specific time?

That’s a question well worth answering to create credible, motivated and realistic characters.





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