If you try to minimize the complexity of grief you are bound to fail.
Imagine my surprise as I grew into an adult and started to write about my own experiences with grief. It started in earnest in college when my high school girlfriend broke up with me and a friend subsequently overdosed on heroin. I wasn’t sure how to make sense of it and so I began writing. I really thought I had trained my whole youth for this. I was ready to be the best grieving writer in the world!
But I quickly realized that my writing about grief was awful. The poetry was angsty, the short stories had characters that belonged in romance novels, and the countless failed attempts to start novellas came out cliché. What happened? I thought that the best writers experienced grief and took that raw energy to the page. What was I missing? Plus, I knew I was a decent writer otherwise, my craft wasn’t the problem, so what was it about grief that relegated my scribbles back to immature levels?
Well, as it turns out, dealing explicitly with grief in writing is not as easy as it seems. This is mostly because grief is not a simple emotion. The primary emotions we feel are mad, glad, sad, and afraid. Grief is a labyrinth of these emotions; it is an unpredictable amalgamation of all of these that can look quite different depending on when and how you look at it. As a writer if you try to minimize the complex nature of grief into a simpler emotion you are bound to fail. In my early writing about grief I did just that, trying to force the grief to be something more manageable like anger or sadness. My writing suffered accordingly.
Writing about grief is also not as easy as it seems because the writer first needs to go through the many layers of grief before they understand it enough to put in on the page. My writing after my breakup and my friend’s death was immature because my understanding of the grief of the experience was immature. Indeed, it would take years of therapy to uncover the many layers of the grief of this time in my life. Funnily enough, as I worked through how I understood the experience the writing about it began to improve. In other words, as I began to understand more about the complicated reality of my own grief I was able to better bring the world of grief to life on the page.
I quickly learned that the power of the books I loved in my adolescence was their ability to keep grief complicated. When the puppy dies in Of Mice and Men the reader feels sadness, rage, uncertainty, relief, and scared. The first time you read Hamlet the levels of betrayal, humor, and helplessness all come together to give you a feeling that is not easily described. Why were these authors able to keep grief complicated? Because they knew it would be dishonest to do it any other way. They themselves knew what it was like to work through the complexities of grief and so they were able to pass down that complexity to their ideas and characters.
For a year I worked as a chaplain in a burn intensive care unit. I sat with hundreds of people contemplating how their life or the life of their loved ones would be forever changed by disfigurement, breathing tubes, or scars. I heard a lot of grief. My experiences there were how my most recent book of vignettes The Garage? Just Torch It. came to be.
When putting together this book what became increasingly clear to me was that every person’s story of grief was radically different. Some people laughed when their loved one was given a death sentence, not because they were callous but because they didn’t know what else to do. Some people cried every time the nurse took a routine blood test. Other people made pirate jokes out of an eye patch that covered a now-empty socket. Every one was different and every one was grieving. They were each grieving in their own unique way.
So when writing I would have been foolish to encapsulate grief in any one way. I had to remain flexible. I also had to remain humble. These people, both the real ones in front of me and my struggling characters, had something real to teach me about how the world works. As a writer it was my responsibility to be open to what they had to teach me.
Look, grief is complex. Along with love it is the most difficult human emotion to portray in writing. But it is necessary for us writers to keep trying to work with it and to give it the respect it deserves. We all know what it feels like to grieve, so what a gift we can give as writers to bear witness in our writing to all of that wonderfully complicated net of emotions!
How do you write about grief in your writing?
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