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On Death and Grief
Everything has its season. From the cradle, we know death is inevitable for all living things but we shun it, fight it, and do our best to not think about it most of the time. But, as with all things, when it has its season, we have no choice. We fare better when we prepare in advance for our moments of no choice.
There’s been a lot of no-choice moments in my life, as there have been in most others’ lives, particularly those who’ve lived a while. The older we get, the smaller our circle becomes of who remains with us. That’s the natural way of things. I can’t speak to how all people react to death and dying, of course, but I can share some observations and insights—all filtered through my own perspective because like everything else, that is our natural viewpoint. We can try, both as writers and as human beings, but we cannot be totally objective about anything, and that’s just the fact of it. Our beliefs and experiences and perspectives influence us–even on stagnant, inanimate observations.
Unexpected and Expected Deaths
Expected v Unexpected. When someone close to you dies unexpectedly it is no less tragic or less devastating than when the person suffers a lengthy illness and you witness it firsthand. The circumstances are different, but the mourning and sense of loss is the same. Yes, you’re more shocked at the unexpected death, but shock quickly falls to the pain of loss, and grief sinks in its talons fast and deep.
Perhaps the hardest part of the unexpected death is what is left unsaid, undone, or unresolved. Those things can haunt the people left behind for a long time; some, forever. The things we didn’t say, the things we wish we had said or done, can be heavy burdens. But just as often, those very unresolved things become beacons that encourage and motivate people to say what needs saying while they have the chance, to do what needs doing while the opportunity exists, and to resolve all they can now, before it’s too late. They’ve learned the lesson of regret through experience (their own or someone else’s) and they know unfinished business is a harsh, mean taskmaster to those left behind. It’s a heavy burden they don’t want to carry.
Expected or unexpected, death impacts people differently. Those left behind don’t react with a one-size-fits-all grief. They react in a way that is normal and logical to them for them. That doesn’t mean losing even someone distant can’t leave behind someone who grieves deeply.
The level of grief is relative to the role the deceased played in your life, or what that person represented to you, the individual. A small role doesn’t mean it wasn’t a powerful, important role. So if a person loses a distant friend, don’t assume (or let your characters assume) that the person grieving isn’t suffering mightily. S/he could be. Watch that person for clues that will signal the level of his or her grief.
When someone close to you dies and it’s expected (i.e. a lengthy illness, a disease that has had them declining), the actual passing is still a shock and devastating. Perhaps because “hope springs eternal.” We believe in miracles and hope for one. So long as there is life, there is hope, right? Or perhaps we’ve watched that person fight mightily and recover to some degree repeatedly. So we have an expectation (consciously or not) that s/he will rally again. And when s/he doesn’t, we’re stunned.
If we’ve been in the caretaker role for the deceased, that brings a whole new level of grief complications. Because we’ve been immersed in that care, and the person now has passed, we feel lost. We wander around with a what am I supposed to be doing, I should be doing something mentality when there are a ton of things to do. But because our primary caretaking is no longer required, we’re out of sorts. Time will settle this, of course, but for the first few weeks, we carry the sense of not doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and we feel lost and very unsettled. Grief then smacks us hard.
The thing is, whether a death of someone close is expected or not, we grieve and end up in the abyss. That’s what I call it. It’s an inner place of such deep grief that we ask ourselves all the big questions, and some rendition of the one we could have answered when standing outside the abyss but suddenly we just aren’t so sure about anymore: “If this is it—all there is to life—then why bother?”
For a time, pain blinds us to beauty and the good and the joy in life. We see, think, hear and feel only pain. And, it breaks my heart to say it, but the truth is some of us get stuck in the abyss. We just can’t summon the faith that life will be good again, we will heal enough to not hurt like this always, and crawl through the hopeless muck to pull ourselves out. If you, or one of your characters, gets to that place, intervene. Now. Get professional help—a grief counselor. A confidant. A pastor or minister. The person stuck must have a reason—find a reason—to crawl out of the abyss. In books or life, motivation to this conflict is required to resolve this obstacle.
For persons of faith, this is spiritual warfare. If Evil, by whatever name you call it, succeeds in keeping one in the abyss, then it wins. The victim won’t go on to fulfill his/her purpose. The victim will grow more and more listless, disconnected, unengaged, and evil will win. If the victim battles, exercising its right to balance, it wins. It’s the clash of the spiritual titans for the grief-stricken soul, and the person’s free will determines the outcome.
To heal from grief, one must want to heal. Free will is never violated. So while for believers winning would be a spiritual slam-dunk, the individual’s free will choice must be to win. Using deception (things will never get better; you’ll always feel this bad, hopeless, helpless, lost) Good and Evil battle mightily, but the person makes the choice.
Some need or enjoy the attention of being the grieving (insert relationship to the deceased). Some try but it’s as if they’re stuck in a long dark hallway and they can’t see a glimmer of light to find their way to it. Some are so devastated by the loss of this person in their lives they just don’t want to go on without them. And some let guilt or shame or any of a dozen emotions color their view and they get stuck.
Odd and unusual reactions. We study grief so that the characters we write about behave realistically. The truth is we have far broader reactions in life than in fiction. In fiction, writers shoot for reactions and responses, for conduct, that seems consistent for the majority of people in that situation. But in real life, and in well-written fiction, people can have odd or usual (to most of us) reactions to death and conduct in grief.
A few examples: Have you ever been to a funeral and someone is laughing?
- Some people consider laughter during that solemn event vulgar.
- Some, particularly those who consider death not final death but a transition, are respectful and sad that the person is leaving them behind but do feel genuine joy at the homecoming awaiting the deceased on the other side. Laughter is a celebration of the deceased’s life.
- Others consider being at any funeral morbid and they’re scared to death to be in the room with a corpse much less with one that is not a stranger.
- Still others, when grieving, pull deep inside themselves and block their emotions so they don’t feel the pain. They might or might not even notice the laughter. Might or might not remember being at the funeral. They are the ones with the blank expressions, or wearing masks of indifference, afraid that if they feel at all, they’ll fall apart and don’t want to do that publicly.
- Some wail and carry on because they think that proves they loved the deceased, or because they want/need attention. They might laugh with whoever laughed or blister their ears for being disrespectful. But for this harshest critic, so to speak, or cohort, it isn’t about the laughter or bawling or the deceased. It’s about others’ expectations for those left behind, or about attention needed/wanted.
- Some walk around or just sit, bewildered by it all. They’re in a perpetual fog. Tell them something and ten minutes later, they have no recollection of it. Five minutes or two minutes later, they simply don’t recall. Their appearance may be normal, but there are vacant rooms in the mind at the moment. They might sit in a darkened room for hours on end. (Respect that short-term, then engage them and reintroduce them to light.) They were initially numb, then stunned, and now bewildered. Bringing life into those dark places is like extending a hand to them to help them find their way back to life. The fog lifts and they cope and then heal.
- Some in mourning are quiet, reflective, serene. They’ve made peace with mortality and the circle of life. Often the aged and the very young (who don’t think they’re ever going to get old and die) respond in this way.
- And some are envious. They’re confident grace has fallen onto the head of the deceased and s/he is happy, content and at peace while the envious one is still battling the mortal battles.
The point. There are other reactions, and the point is simply this: While death and grief have common traits we readily recognize and experience, our exact experience with it is unique to us because we are unique. In the same way that all human beings have universal traits and unique ones. So our responses, our thoughts and actions and the way in which we process death and grief are going to be unique to us. Our reactions will be relative to the sum of our beliefs, our experiences, our social mores, and be governed by the role the person who has passed plays in our lives.
Experts say there is no greater loss to a person than that of a spouse or a parent. When our character loses a friend, we shouldn’t expect the same level of grief experienced at the loss of a parent or spouse. Losing a friend is hard. Losing a parent is devastating. Remember though, the reaction depends on the role the person plays in your life. Losing a friend who plays the role of a parent would have most characters grieving as if s/he had lost a parent.
Final point, though I could write a book on this subject and not touch on all the nuances, do let the grief that your character suffers, his or her reaction to the death of someone close or to dying, be natural to that character. Take the time to determine how that specific character would react, think, feel and how that natural reaction would best serve your story.
Grieving people do unusual things for unusual reasons, but to the person doing those things, they are reasonable, logical, often deemed necessary and even essential. So know not just what your character is doing in this situation. Know why s/he is doing it.
That will fuel your plot and add deeper dimension to your characters—and it might just give you additional needed insights in real life, too.
Two notes. 1) Experts say there are seven stages of grief. 2) Traditionally we’re in mourning for a year.
As to the first: Seven stages doesn’t mean one will experience each of them. Some won’t. And it doesn’t mean each stage lasts x amount of time. This varies greatly person-to-person. Look up the stages. Understand the stages. But treat the stages as guidelines. Know the individual. His /her reaction to grief will be unique to him/her.
As to the second. Days on a calendar do not change what is in a man or woman or child’s heart. The contributing factors—relationship, life role, stability and emotional health, circumstances of the grief-stricken—play a huge role. The bottom line is a person grieves until they find a way to cope with the death that is natural to them and accepted by them. They grieve until they don’t. This is why that extending a hand, intervening with life, is vital to them. So be respectful, give them time, but also be aware and when sparks of needing motivation to grasp life arise, seize them.
Death can come gently or strike with a vengeance. It can come softly or with the force of a sledge. So can grief. Grief can take all kinds of forms. We have tools and methods and the means to cope. Of all my observations, none is more consistent than this: death and grief are harsh taskmasters. They take us to places we don’t want to go. They demand our full attention. They hurt.
But we can accept them as a natural part of life. We can deal with them, cope and heal—and so must our story people. There is life after death and loss. And that is message we most want to carry.
© 2014, Vicki Hinze. Hinze is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of nearly thirty novels in a variety of genres including, suspense, mystery, thriller, and romantic or faith-affirming thrillers. Her latest release is Down and Dead in Dixie. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in Philosophy, Theocentric Business and Ethics. Hinze’s online community: Facebook. Books. Twitter. Contact. www.vickihinze.com.