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.
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.