The Courage to Grieve

I’ve mentioned before — many times before — that I started writing about grief when I got frustrated with all the misconceptions of grief I found in fiction. And I continue to write about grief because the misconceptions continue.

In the book I just started to read but probably won’t finish, the guy’s very rich wife was murdered. When he told his wife’s secretary about the death, the secretary cried a few minutes, vomited, then took a deep breath, and said, “No more tears. We have to be brave.”

He, of course, had been “brave” from the beginning, and hadn’t shed a single tear. Had no trouble breathing, thinking, planning, and yet, his dead wife was the love of his life. I can understand a writer not wanting the character to succumb to grief, and I can understand the writer not knowing the full impact of grief, not just tears and sorrow, but the horrendous physical and mental changes that occur when you lose someone who has meant everything to you — changes that you cannot control, and changes that (if you’ve never experienced them) you cannot even imagine.

What I cannot forgive is that “we have to be brave” sentence. Blocking out grief (to the extent that it can be blocked out), is not bravery. It is rank cowardice. (I’m not talking about people blocking out grief because of shock or a true inability to accept the truth. I’m talking about a fictional character deliberately blocking out grief in a misguided attempt at being brave.)

True courage is facing the loss, experiencing grief in all its permutations, going where grief takes you. And that means tears, explosive anger, inability to breathe or think and the dozens of other insane ways that grief flogs you. I understand the character’s need to find the murderer in a timely manner, but you don’t do that by blocking out the grief. You use grief’s own energy — and your own anger — to catapult you into action. Blocking the grief enervates you because it takes a huge dam of energy to shut off grief’s demands. (Only people who have been in that situation know that you don’t go through grief; grief goes through you. Grief is the one in control.) And the block only lasts so long, anyway. Eventually, like any tsunami, grief will break through the dam with greater energy than if you’d have had the courage to face it in the first place.

I know I’m being idealistic here — a character, especially a male thriller/adventurer character must be macho no matter what (with only miniscule chinks of vulnerability to shed light on the true depth of the character), but the stereotype still perpetrates the myth of grief that so many of us believe — that we must not cry because we must be strong at all costs and we must be brave and tears make us weak.

Tears do not make us weak. Tears actually make us strong because they relieve stress of all kinds and enable us to continue when we think we can’t. Maybe there wouldn’t be so much nastiness in the world if people would just let themselves cry. If cowboys had wept, the west (at least the mythological west) would have been a more genteel place. But then, there would be no “westerns.” And if soldiers wept . . .

Well, now I’m getting ridiculously idealistic. But the truth remains: it takes courage to grieve. Refusing to face grief because of a fictional need to be brave is cowardice. Pure and simple.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.