The Unexpected Gifts of Writing About Grief
Jacquelyn Mitchard on Telling Stories That Offer the Hope of Hope
If I have been asked one question more often in my writing life than any other, it’s this: Why write such sad stories?
The short answer is this: I believe that they matter more. They mean more to us. They are the protein of prose, not necessarily the most appealing confection on the plate but with the power to teach us the big lessons, when we write them and when we read them. Writing them is not easy, but it feels necessary to me. As every good writing professor will tell you to do, I write the stories I want to read.
This is true despite the fact that no one would call me a downbeat human being. My default setting is a bit on the side of optimism, despite having lived a life that included an extravagance of luck—but definitely luck of both kinds. And yet, the stories I write will break your heart. As one reviewer wrote about my first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, “Mitchard understands the majesty of grief.”
In my newest novel, The Good Son, I found myself returning to the hardest places. It tells of a woman named Thea who struggles to help her college-age son, Stefan, rebuild his life after serving time in prison for his role in the death of Belinda, the girl he loved. Thea is shocked to discover that she doesn’t even really know what happened on that terrible night—and maybe she doesn’t truly know her own only child.
I put Thea on this road for a reason, even though it leads inevitably to the dark side of human event—if not of human nature. I am drawn to calamity, instead of tales about finding new love or a missing manuscript, which also can be skillfully made and thoroughly endearing.
For me, the real-life hard times make for narrative good times. A great week at the beach is a great experience and a great memory, but it’s not necessarily a great story. Happy families are all alike, as Tolstoy said, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Those ways, in other words, are interesting. It’s under pressure that people are truly revealed—their motivations, their fears and desires, their truest character.
I learned this first through the experience of writing my first novel. I was widowed very young, in my late 30s, with three young children to raise, and I decided that I needed to do something to hold on to life, to make life count for my sons and me. Every day, after I finished my job at the university news service, after the kids were asleep, often on the foot of my bed, heartbroken with the loss of their father, I wrote. In part, I wrote it to in hope: Stories would help me fight our way to a better life for us. We would never be without the grief but we would someday find a way to laugh again.It’s under pressure that people are truly revealed—their motivations, their fears and desires, their truest character.
It seems ironic to write about another mother enduring the abduction of a child and the bitter lessons of his eventual return, to seek a way to my own future. But stories of pain are also stories of pain endured and survived, if not conquered. When my husband died, a friend said to me, you can’t outrun grief and you can’t avoid it. You are going to have to really grow close to grief; go right up and put your face against it. I did that through my writing.
Of course, it’s not necessary to literally chronicle the personal losses in your own life. Some authors thinly disguise their own stories in the cloak of fiction, but I’ve used my own despair as an inspiration to invent the blues of a fictional world. I draw on them all. In later years, other hard times befell me, including losing everything we owned and everything I’d ever earned when my husband trusted a financial advisor who turned out to be a crook. I was paralyzed with grief for a while, this time mourning the loss of the future, of college educations and retirement security that would never happen, but eventually, when I began to write, it was not about financial devastation but instead about a failed adoption or a child orphaned by a flood. A great plot is necessary, an unparalleled vehicle, but the seal of a great story is its emotional authenticity.
Everyone who’s ever known trouble, and that’s everyone, has also known what it’s like to feel alone with it. It’s an awful feeling, the aloneness almost as cruel as the trouble itself. And so dark stories can provide a kind of relief: If I know that this character survived, then maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance that I can survive as well. Maybe the thought of how they endured can comfort me as I begin my own slow climb back toward the light. That’s why support groups exist, why Alcoholics Anonymous and its many offshoots continue to provide such validation to so many. Is it schadenfreude, or the delight in another’s misfortune? No, it’s different from that: It’s a sense of sharing: We are all alone but we are all alone together. Stories have always provided that comfort for me. Books about hard times can be support groups between two covers, empathy set in type.
The heart of a painful story matters more than its circumstances. I write about profoundly troubling events that never happened in my own life, and which I hope never will. I’ve never had a child incarcerated or addicted to drugs or damaged by fire. I’ve never endured a bitter custody battle. But I’ve written about all those things and readers have turned to them avidly, as I have hungered to read about and understand topics that may not have been part of my personal life experience, such as racism, class struggle, chronic illness, identity and family crisis even more harrowing than my own family of origin.
In the research for those narratives, talking to people who’d actually lived those challenges, I was able to finally stand in their shoes. This level of understanding is fraught. The author inevitably needs to feel what your characters feel. You need to imagine your way into their house and dwell there.
It can be daunting to find just the right way to bring your characters to life and dignify their pain. I set myself the task of trying never to use the word “feel” or “felt” but trying instead to illustrate their despair through the ways they spoke, how they behaved, how they treated other characters, through their interior thoughts. After her son was abducted, Beth Cappadora, the main character in The Deep End of the Ocean, never spoke of her loss. She instead ignored her other children, became distant and cold, barely spoke, withdrew from the husband who loved her.
By contrast, in The Good Son, Jill, the mother of the murdered girl, did little except talk about the loss of Belinda. She became a bitter, vengeful activist, her hatred of the young man convicted of the crime evident in her zeal, from her words to her frozen smile. One depressed character may sleep all the time; another may stare into the darkness all night. The author has to take care with the structure, choosing just the right amount of mournful detail to affect the reader deeply but not so much that the story ends up repelling them. The only essential is to tell the truth. If the author panics, or cries, or loses sleep, chances are that writer is telling the truth.
In the end, if you can bear it, there are gifts from writing such a story.
Just as you do when you read a book that deals with hard times, you come away with it having learned more about yourself through the trials of another—about rage and catastrophe, but also about compassion, mercy, courage and forgiveness. The shadow helps us appreciate and understand the eventual light.
I would be the last person to say that fiction should be a moral force; yet for thousands of years, in every culture and for every reason, stories have been the medium used to teach a moral code—a way of being. It’s no accident that the great teachers, like Jesus, if you will, used parables about one person to represent the trials and temptations of all people.
Fortunately or unfortunately, not every incident befalls every person. Not many people win a lottery; not many people survive a wilderness plane crash. In that sense, as the psychologist Keith Oatley has said, fiction is a mental “flight simulator,” that confers the emotions of the experience without the actual experience. One of the important gifts of fiction is that it is true to life but not true. The events aren’t really happening to anyone; no one’s life is literally being torn apart. To write about, or read about events rather than actually living them lends a sort of spiritual remove, a space for contemplation.
People say human beings don’t learn from the mistakes or troubles of others, but I don’t believe that. This is the gift of fiction, its power. You can leave the story behind, but it never leaves you. The loss or mishap that may have inducted you into the ability to create such a poignant story will never leave you either; but as you learn to live with it and through it, it becomes part of your character, your hard-won human credential.
The last thing I want is to leave a reader without comfort. And yet, when a story has an honest and satisfying conclusion, it doesn’t have to conclude with a festival of a wedding. Stories of unrelieved sadness—like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or more recently, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, make for difficult reads.
However, even there, as in The Good Son, the anguish of the characters is at least leavened by understanding—and by the sometimes astonishing power of love.
On one episode of my favorite-ever TV show, The West Wing, the hard-knocks soft-heart character of Leo McGarry, so sweetly played by the late John Spencer, told that old story about a guy who fell into a hole too deep and steep to go back up again. After a while, a doctor walked past up above. Eagerly, the guy shouted, “Doc, help me out!” The doctor wrote out a prescription and threw it down to the man in the hole. Soon, a priest came by, and the guy again yelled from the hole, “Father help me!” The priest wrote down a prayer and threw it into the hole. Then a friend came by. “Help me!” called the man and, in response, his friend jumped into the hole. “What did you do that for?” the man asked, and the friend replied, “Because I’ve been down here too, and I know a way out.”
That may be why I keep writing those stories that go the hard road. While they are distressing, they almost invariably— if you can bear it—offer what might be called a hope of hope, for the reader as well as for me. The gift of hard times is not nobility, or even necessarily grace, it’s resilience. I know, for I’ve been down there—and I know the way out.
Jacquelyn Mitchard’s novel, The Good Son, is available now via Mira.