Dealing with grief is on my mind right now, as my last post might indicate. But can stories help us deal with grief?
Our brains are great at running simulations of situations we have not been through. It's part of our survival mechanism. I've been really digging into neuroscience lately as part of the research for my next sci-fi novel, Sleepwalker. There are many ways in which our brains are set up to take in information that can help us be ready to navigate such terrain should we find ourselves in similar situations.
1. Simulations of the Future
Stories tap right into this simulation aspect of how our brains function. As David Eagleman, author of The Brain: The Story Of You, puts it, "watching someone else in pain and being in pain use the same neural machinery. This is the basis of empathy. ... To empathize with another person is to literally feel their pain. You run a compelling simulation of what it would be like if you were in that situation. Our capacity for this is why stories—like movies and novels—are so absorbing and so pervasive across human culture." (The Brain, pg 158).
Because of this, stories that deal with grief can be a preparatory simulation for us if we've never found ourselves in the position of experiencing life's finite nature and the loss of people we love. Empathizing with hurting characters as they grieve can give us various pictures of this fundamental part of the human experience. As we place ourselves in such characters' shoes our brains are taking notes for how we might respond in a similar scenario. The brain can do this in both positive and negative ways. So even if a character responds poorly to grief, we might note that a particular coping mechanism is not an effective means for surviving grief.
2. Processing Past Pain
The reality is, for most of us, it didn't take very long for us to experience grief. Like me, you've probably lost people close to you already some time ago. In this way, stories of grief are not some kind simulation of a possible future but a reminder of very real memories. Often, such stories are an outlet for emotions we may have experienced in the past. For some of us stories can serve as a safe way to experience emotions we might even have repressed but that we still need to work through.
Experiencing stories can be a safe outlet for this. We can empathize with characters and watch how they navigate the pain and sorrow, possibly even taking note of ways in which such characters grow and heal through the grieving process. Sometimes, we might even discover emotions we've failed fully acknowledge as we experience a story. I know from experience that this can be an incredibly freeing catharsis to finally acknowledge certain emotions. I've experienced this both in terms of stories surrounding 9-11 and stories dealing with abuse (it's own form of grief). In this way, movies like World Trade Center, Spotlight, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower had surprising impacts on me. In this manner, stories can hold up a mirror for us to look into for a while. If we're willing to be vulnerable, we can learn many things about ourselves in this process, as I've discussed before.
3. Writing Stories As Healing
As a writer, I also find great catharsis in expressing such emotions through a story I'm crafting. The act of creating fictional characters involves drawing from my own life experiences. Characters are never formed in a vacuum. Most writers will readily admit that their characters represent some aspect of themselves. Characters working through grief are no exception.
In my novel, Unidentified, my main character is dealing with the loss of her friend and FBI partner. In her grief are many of the painful questions around why bad things happen to good people, survivor's guilt, and more. While there was not one specific loss I experienced that inspired this character's journey, I have said goodbye to several people I cared for quite a bit.
I remember my shock as a college student when I learned that a long-time friend and brother to a close friend of mine had drowned over Labor Day weekend. To this day, there are still specific things that trigger memories of shared experiences and inside jokes. My uncle Kip passed away a few years ago in an unexpected car accident. He was an avid reader and every time I finish reading a book and mark it down in my yearly progress sheet, I think of him. In 2010, I spoke on the phone with my grandfather one Sunday afternoon while he was in the hospital for chemo. He was tired but otherwise cheerful. A few short hours later, he took a turn for the worse and passed. I was stunned. In just over two weeks, my grandmother, his wife, followed him.
Writing about grief has been helpful for me as I continue to feel the absence of these people in my life. Writing fiction can be a great place to be simultaneously vulnerable and somewhat detached as your characters, while born in some capacity out of your experiences, ultimately are not you.
Even when not directly dealing with grief as a subject or subtext in my writing, the act of writing has helped me through the grieving process. I remember years ago, while I was working on one of my early screenplays, I had learned that an old friend from my childhood had just died in a car accident. I recall at least one writing sessions in which I paused, placed my head on the desk, and wept. Finally, when I was ready (and frankly not knowing what else to do with myself), I wiped my eyes and resumed writing.
Conclusion: Grief Is On-Going
Grief is a common and recurring experience. It's not something that gets less painful. I do think we can get better at being honest about our emotions surrounding grief. For this very reason, I think we continue to need preparation for dealing with it when it next visits us.
It is also worth acknowledging that grief is a long process and the losses we experience never really go away. We can never replace the people we love. So there is always room for more vulnerability, healing, and catharsis. Stories and connections with others who can help us through such pain are important ways we can safely experience our many feelings in the grieving process and find healing as we walk through grief together.
How about you? Are there specific stories that have helped you with grief? Do you find writing helps you process (even if you're not a professional writer)?