worlds beyond these: some final thoughts

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

This post is the fourth and final in a series. If you haven't read any of the other posts, at least have a quick read of Part 1. You may want to also read Part 2 and Part 3.

To sum up the previous three posts:
  • The five stages of grief are, in no particular order, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, and Anger.
  • Not all grieving people go through all five stages.
  • Some non-grieving people will go through one or more of the five stages when they discover someone else is a survivor.
Now, here's the fun part. Once I actually started this blog series and mentioned what I was writing about, I found out from someone I know who does grief counselling that the five stages.... are bogus. They're not the five stages of grief at all. There is no such thing as the five stages of grief.

What happened was someone defined them as the five stages of a patient dealing with a traumatic health event: a major stroke, say, or an amputation. Someone else stole the idea and applied it to grief. Except, while there is some overlap, they're not really about grief.

So when the grieving family gets back from the funeral home and the casserole the neighbour brought over is warming up in the oven, please do me and all the other survivors in this world a favour and don't make noises about the five stages. They are a fairy tale, and my own subjective experience tells me they do more harm than good. They make people who are already going through grief feel like they have to respond in certain ways that aren't even necessarily applicable.

The stages of grief that Western society has internalised since at least the 1980s are fiction. They have nothing to do with actual grief.

What if you are trying to write actual fiction? How does death and survival and grief fit in?

What bothers me the most about survivors in fiction is that grief tends to be a Chekhov's gun sort of thing. That is, it's only mentioned when it's going to become a plot point or the cause for a character trait. There are precious few major examples in fiction where someone has a dead relative just by-the-bye. At best, they're orphans to deny them a safety net of support.

When death and grieving do get mentioned, they tend to be what's called "complicated grief", which is another thing I learnt about while writing this series. Complicated grief is when someone is so overwhelmed by their grief that they can't function. People with complicated grief wind up taking time off work for months at a time. Grieving is an unusually long and difficult process for them.

Real-life people going through real-life complicated grief deserve support and empathy, but unfortunately for the majority of us who have "regular" grief (whatever that really is), complicated grief tends to show up in fiction more prominently. Think  of Hamlet's behaviour after his father's death, or Lear screaming on stage with Cordelia in his arms. Everyone I know who has gone through, um, "uncomplicated" grief has stories about being told they're "heartless" or "didn't really love" their deceased relative because they haven't been seen in public wailing and tearing their hair out.

And you know what? It's not fair, and it makes a difficult situation worse for those dealing with death and loss. It's a great example of a situation where fictional conventions overwhelm psychological reality.

One of the few examples of regular grief done well I can think of is in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, where Laura decides to reconcile with Rob in part because she just wants a break from feeling awful. Grieving is often like that. You can go out, watch a funny film, enjoy it, then go home and spot the dead person's favourite coffee mug on the draining board and just fall apart. A lot of people are perfectly fine getting through their day-to-day lives at school or work, and then they go home and cry. They're not "hiding how they feel", or "putting on a brave face for the world". They're just doing what comes naturally.

On the other hand, there's also this weird pressure to "get over it". Grief counsellors I'm in contact with have told me stories about clients getting told to "snap out of it" one week after the unexpected death of a close relative. This too gets depicted in fiction a lot. A character will grieve just long enough to make the reader feel sorry for them, and then they shift gears and move onto whatever the next emotional prompt is. Maybe there will be some mentions of the death sprinkled later on in the book for continuity.

The consensus is that there is no "getting over it" per se. Most people say they have adjusted to a new version of reality. There is no going back.

Running in a weird parallel with the "get over it" attitude is the threat that if you don't "get over it", you'll somehow be forever messed up and wind up with "issues".

Personally I'm uncomfortable with the idea of "changed" being equated to "messed up" once death enters the mix. Yes, there's some things I'm not into because my dad died when I was thirteen. I will never, ever watch Mamma Mia or anything else with a  "search for my real dad so I can be walked down the aisle by him at my wedding" plot. My father died exactly one week before Father's Day, so I tend to arrange my errands so I don't have to go out a lot when the Father's Day sales are in full swing.

But there's crippling personality traits based on past trauma, and then there's quirks. The fictional Indiana Jones certainly seemed to be a well-functioning character despite a strong phobia for snakes.

So I'm going to wrap this series up by challenging writers to step up their efforts to depict grief more accurately. If you want a resource, I strongly recommend reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. It's a doorstop — the copy I read was over 1,000 pages — but it's worth it, it's a great read, and you can always skim the parts that don't touch you. There are more than enough wonderful passages in it to make up for the skimmed parts.

worlds beyond these: part 3 (penultimate posting)

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

If you haven't read Part 1 of this series, you might want to go back and at least read the introduction before continuing here. There's also a Part 2.

Parts 1 and 2 got the crazy, ugly, incredulous reactions out of the way. This post covers reactions which are a lot more understandable, and which are a lot easier to generate empathy for.

Depression

It happens. A survivor could be having a perfectly nice conversation with someone, and they'll say something like, "How long have your parents been married now?"

And so you explain, as briefly and with as little drama as possible, and the person you're having the conversation with falls apart.

I have made people cry by merely saying, "My dad died when I was thirteen." I was just giving information; it was not my intention to make them cry, and they weren't looking for an excuse to.

All that's happening is that the person is so able to imagine the same thing happening to them they have a grief reaction. All you can do is reassure them and, if necessary, change the subject.

Anger

I mentioned in Part 1 my dad died of a heart attack. While the exact cause was never determined, he smoked. He had a lot of work stress. Even though he was strongly against any and all junk food (including a lot of food which isn't even thought of as "junk food" in North America), he had trouble keeping his weight at healthy levels.

Starting about ten years after he passed away (so around 1993), I began to encounter people who would quiz me for health details. Once the ones I enumerated in the previous paragraph came to light, they would declare he was a bad father who should have taken better care of himself. They would say he was no better than a father who willfully abandons his children.

I will not provide my entire counter-argument here, but I will say it is not for them to decide how fit a parent he was.

I always wonder what has happened to these people that they feel so strongly about passing judgement on someone they never met.

Bargaining

Sometimes when people learn what happened, they don't become sad or angry. They become fascinated with hypotheticals.

"What do you think your life would be like it that hadn't happened?"

"Do you think it was harder on you or on your brothers?"

"How much do you think that affects you today?"

The answer to all of the above is that I don't know, and that I'm not sure they're even answerable.

Onwards

Those who have been keeping track of the phases will know I left out "acceptance". I can't think of anything to discuss there — people just say something along the lines of "I'm sorry" and then things move on.

The series wraps up next week with some reflections — including some things I learned as I wrote these posts.

I'm also going to tie this back to fiction writing, both to plotting and to characterisation. But more on that next week.

worlds beyond these: part 2 & some reflections

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

If you haven't read Part 1 of this series, you might want to go back and at least read the introduction before continuing here.

Li and John both commented that it would be a good idea to mark these as non-fiction. I've added it as a label, and put a note up top here and in Part 1 as well.

Part 2 is the second and last example dealing with denial. It's a little harder to explain, because unlike Part 1's example, I'm pretty sure I never got to witness the worst of it. It's sort of like reading a novel where the protagonist keeps on noticing people playing cards, but it doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything until two weeks later when you're trying to describe the book to a friend. I didn't put everything together until years after all these little snapshots of interactions occurred.

Part 2: More Denial

Snapshot A: church
I'm thirteen, my one brother is ten, and my youngest brother is four. So after my dad passes away, when it's communion-time at church, my mum goes up first, and then when she returns to the pew I go up with my ten-year-old brother. That way there's always someone old enough to be responsible with the four-year-old. Nothing more to it than that.

Except...

The whole time my mum is standing in line at the front of the church, the people behind us are whispering things like: "That's not allowed. A divorced woman taking communion... that's not allowed. Why doesn't the priest do something about it? Why doesn't he talk to her? Who does she think she is? I suppose it's the modern way... but it's not allowed. Well, if the priest wants to help her pretend..."

It was an open casket visitation. The obit was in the local paper. There was a church funeral. There was a condolences notice in the church newsletter. There were In Memoriam masses which were also announced in the church newsletter.
Even if they missed all that — Catholic congregations are big around here and you don't get to know everyone — there's no excuse.

I could have had a dad who was disabled and found it too difficult to physically make it to church.

I could have had a dad who wasn't Catholic but who agreed that the kids would be raised Catholic.

But no. They had to go there.

Snapshot B: music class interrogations
There's a girl, let's call her Vera, in music class. I only met her when I started high school. But she knows about me and my family a little bit, because her family is friends with my mum's hairdresser.

A couple of times a week, when we're getting our musical instruments out of their cubbyholes or putting them back, she asks me questions.

"Does your mum wear makeup?" she says.

"Lipstick."

"So, would you say your mum wears a lot of makeup?"

"Just lipstick."

"Do you think your mum is pretty?"

"She was a model in high school."

"You're lying."

"She wasn't a famous model. She modelled clothes from home sewing patterns."

"Did your dad know how to cook?"

"Yeah. He was good at it."

She laughs at me. "Oh yeah, sure. Hamburgers and hot dogs."

"His first job in Canada was working as a cook."

And on. Sometimes I'll interrupt her and ask what the point of all these questions is. She shrugs and acts like they're no big deal. They aren't presented like I've written them here — just one or two a day, a few times a week — but if the same question was asked more than once and I varied in my answer at all, I'd get grilled on it.

She says her hairdresser contact gave a different answer than mine. I ask her what the hell business it is of any of them and tell her I'm tired of being mined for gossip.

She says she just wants to know and that she doesn't mean anything by it.

The thing is, the incidents I described in Part 1 only started after the questions started. And Natasha and Vera knew each other.

I understand that there was a time (in some places that time is now) where a family that's been abandoned by one or the other parent will pretend the absent parent is dead. I get that. But I doubt very much that these pretending families will go through such an elaborate charade that they'll find a body to display at a funeral home for a couple of days, hold a church funeral for it, and convince the priests in two parishes to go along with the story.

Reading this post over again, it sounds like these things happened in a much smaller community than they did. We lived just outside of a small town until I was ten, but before my father passed away we moved to a suburb of 300,000 people. There were 1,800 people attending my high school the year I graduated, and the students who went there lived in two different municipal counties. The church where my dad's funeral was held had over 2,000 people in the parish.

There is a line where assumptions turn to malice. And I think these examples show two points that line intersects.

worlds beyond these: introduction & part 1

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

I've been wanting to write this for ten years. Just be forewarned that it's not about what you're going to think it's about from the next couple of paragraphs.

What it's not about is: death, grieving, my dad. Really.

Note, though, that the five stages of grief as outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler are, in no particular order, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, and Anger.

Note also these bare personal facts: my father passed away thirty years ago this past 12 June. He had two heart attacks in one day, it was sudden, and there was no prior medical history to lead us to expect this might happen.

He had just turned forty-eight on 27 May.

I was thirteen years old, and my brothers were ten and four.

But that is not what this series of articles is about.

At the funeral home, at the funeral itself, in the months that followed, we got to hear a lot about those five stages of grief, got to have our every mood and emotional reaction pegged as one of the five.

No-one mentioned one very remarkable thing, though: that those five stages are not just about what you and the other loved ones of the deceased go through. Other people who have never met the person who passed away react the same way. And that's when things can get very, very weird.

This series isn't about me. It's about everyone else.

Because it's about everyone else, I've changed names for the usual reasons. The point isn't to embarrass anyone, although in the case I'm covering in Part 2, I'd like to. The point is to consider other viewpoints.

Some of these examples are understandable. The trick for the survivor is just to ensure they're ready for it when it happens.

Some of these examples are as inexcusable as they are unbelievable. Those are the ones I'm putting first.

Part 1: Denial

It is two years after the funeral. I'm in the second year of high school, as is a classmate I've known since before. One day we're in the corridor at lunchtime, talking to a mutual friend whose parents are divorced. The mutual friend mentions she's going to see her dad on the weekend. He lives in another city now, so she only sees him a few times a year.

Natasha, my classmate, turns to me and says, "How often do you see your dad?"

"Pardon?" I say. The question doesn't make any sense.

"Doesn't he have visitation rights?" she presses.

"Visitation rights?"

She rolls her eyes. "Well, I don't think that's right. He's still your dad, and you should be able to see him when you want to."

I finally catch up. "Natasha," I say, "He's dead."

"Whatever," she says, and flounces off with the mutual friend.

There's more to it than that. Not only was Natasha at the recreation centre where my dad had his initial heart attack, not only did she see him borne on a stretcher into an ambulance, but she represented my class at the funeral. She was front-and-centre for the entire event, but here we are two years later, and she's asking about visitation rights. When I confront her later and remind her about the funeral, she just keeps repeating "I don't remember that", as if it makes it true.

Two years later again we're both in senior year and she tells me that once I turn eighteen, any visitation restrictions are null and void. I remind her again of the truth, again she claims not to have lived through her part, and we're back in our starting positions.

Part 2 and a reflection on Parts 1 & 2 will be posted next week.