Write for the Dead Whom Thou Didst Love

 A voice calls, “Write, write!”
I say, “For whom shall I write.”
And the voice replies,
“For the dead whom thou didst love.”

—John Berryman

I read a novel the other day where the main character was a grieving widow with a young daughter, but neither character showed any symptoms of grief — at least not what I have come to know as grief. The only indication of their grief was a conversation about how the two needed to be strong and not cry.

If this is the way the non-grieving public learns about grief, no wonder so few of us understand what grieving means until we find ourselves immersed in this strange new world. Because of the lack of characters who grieve properly, I’ve been toying with writing a book about a grieving woman, even going so far as to write a few scenes while the emotion is still fresh in my mind (though I can’t imagine ever forgetting what it feels like to grieve for a soul mate — every single day in a thousand ways, I am reminded once again that he is gone).

After having written those few scenes, I now understand why it’s almost impossible to write a grief-stricken character. All the tears, the pain, the nausea, the inability to focus, the not sleeping or sleeping too much, the not eating or eating too much add up to a character who appears as a wimp and a whiner. We are so used to invincible characters who manage to fight despite grievous wounds or agonizing pain, that a normal character living a normal — though grief-filled life — comes across as a weakling. Another problem is that a character who cries at her own pain, who feels everything herself, eliminates the need for readers to feel that pain, and so they dissociate from the character. But the very nature of grief is feeling pain. It’s by embracing the pain, by letting the tears spill over, by giving in to the grief that we come to terms with it.

Perhaps that’s the way I should write the character — have her actively participate in her grief. Instead of being brave and not crying, she should embrace the pain, make grief a part of her life. And in doing so, she will show her strength.