Then. Now.

Wendy Hornsby

Let’s talk about grief for just a bit. Personal grief, collective grief, fictional grief. I’m not talking about feeling grief, per se, but about conveying onto the page the way that grief feels. I struggle with this. An editor once said to me, after reading what I thought was a heart wrenching, grief-filled passage, “Haven’t you ever lost anyone dear to you? Tell me how that felt.” Therein lies the crux of the problem: how is that done without getting maudlin, boring, or profligate with clichés?

After that conversation, I took a little time off from the book in progress to write a short story, “High Heels through the Headliner,” about a writer who was stuck with that very problem. My protagonist went to deadly extremes in order to feel various emotions so she could write about them. She asks the daughter of the victim of a horrible murder how she feels: “Scorched, hollow, riven, shredded, iced in the gut? What?” But the only answer she got was, “Poor Mom.” Hardly what she hoped for.

While I struggled with the problem, looking for guidance I read a book by one of my very favorite authors because in the book the series protagonist had just suffered a terrible loss. What I found was, every time the suspense began to build our heroine went to bed and pulled the covers over her head. Immediately, all story momentum stopped dead. And my interest with it.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross defined the stages of grief, and that has helped me some: fresh loss, new reality, old pain, each gets an emotional niche, untidy as the borders between might be. It is the untidiness of emotion that is both interesting and difficult to write about.

My mysteries are less about Who Done It and more about Why Done It. I also try to show how far-ranging and long-lasting the effects of trauma are. Indeed, as I conducted research for 77th Street Requiem, which is based on a real, unsolved murder that happened forty years ago now, I saw firsthand how that one event, the murder, created a powerful black undertow that, two generations later, is still a drag on the lives of the survivors. Drugs, alcohol, prison—those are ramifications I can write about. But the underlying disruption of the soul, that’s tricky.

There can be long-term community grief, as well. Think of the effects of war, terrorism, fire, flood, earthquake. And of course, 9/11, and now Charlie Hebdo.

I lost one of my dearest friends a couple of weeks ago. I could wallow in tears and self-pity for a while longer, but I can hear Sharon scold, “Enough of that, already,” if I did. Instead, I have been thinking quite a lot about her. We were friends for twenty years, travel buddies, confidants. When I met her, Sharon worked on Wall Street, an executive VP with one of the investment giants on Wall Street, and she wrote wonderful mystery novels. She loved her life. Every morning, she ferried across the Hudson into Lower Manhattan, and the adventure of new day began. And then came 9/11.

Sharon called me from her office that morning just after the second jet plowed into the second of the World Trade Towers; she had seen it from her office. We were still on the phone when the towers began to collapse. Immediately, her world was engulfed in a gray cloud of toxic dust. We had met not long after the Northridge earthquake. When I saw her office building for the first time, I reacted like a native Californian: What’s your earthquake exit plan? She laughed. I sent her lighted spelunking headgear as a joke, so she could see her way down the stairs from the 26th floor when the quake came. On 9/11, she walked down those stairs with only the light from her cellphone to guide her. And then she walked fifty blocks uptown through that horrible dust, to get a ferry home. Her life—all of our lives—was never the same again.

After 9/11, Sharon never wrote another book. Or was as ebulliently happy or ever again as healthy as she was on the morning before the jets crashed through our lives. She certainly did not wallow in tears or indulge in self-pity. She still took great joy in life. But her life had changed.

This is what grief feels like to me: You’re walking through an ordinary day, you blink your eyes, and when you open them you’re in a strange country. You don’t want to be there. You don’t speak the language and you resist learning it. None of the floors are level. No matter what you do, you can’t get home again. Over time, you accommodate yourself to this new place. You might become comfortable even. But, oh, how you long to go back, even if just for a visit.

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9 Responses

  1. I can’t remember reading a more moving post, Wendy. Thank you so much.

  2. It’s the end of The Wings of the Dove when Kate says “We shall never again be as we were.” Simple, tragic words.

  3. Thank you for sharing a beautiful insight, Wendy.
    One of the simplest and most moving descriptions of grief I’ve ever read comes from Tony Hillerman: “Emma. The sure knowledge he would never see her again sat on his shoulder.” So few words to relay the ever-renewed shock of loss.

  4. My husband of almost 56 years died last March. We had Hospice care, a couple of months at home to be with family and friends together, to go to concerts, all good. He died as he’d hoped, without pain, two days after walking in our beautiful woods. That’s not like 9/11 or a sudden heart attack . . . or murder, whether real or fictional. In my last mystery, I had my fictional character occasionally overwhelmed by tears, because she was afraid that whoever had killed her brother would come after others in her family. This wasn’t like that. I felt my eyes puddle beforehand, not afterward.

    But everything is different, even though I’m still at home, in a good place, doing most of the same things I did before, plus of course coping with all the things you have to cope with and sorting out what you have to sort out. It’s a job, and I understand that you can’t hurry it. The book I’d started this time last year is still waiting its turn.

    And I’m the one who locks up the house at night and turns out the lights.

    That first morning it was Emily Dickinson’s poem that ran through my head:

    The bustle in a house
    The morning after death
    Is solemnest of industries
    Enacted upon earth, —

    The sweeping up the heart,
    And putting love away

    That’s all exactly right. I’m not sure whether the rest of it is true–

    We shall not want to use again
    Until eternity.

  5. Sara, I am so sorry your husband is gone from your side. You write beautifully about the sad transition. Thank you for Emily Dickinson. Maybe a person with strong faith could sweep up the heart and put love away, expecting to rejoin it in eternity. I think I could not.

  6. Thank you so much, Wendy.

    Dickinson is full of good thoughts about mourning. ‘Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.’

  7. This is a beautiful essay, Wendy. Most of us writers have struggled with how to express grief. For me, doing theater has helped–playing a part in Synge’s Riders to the Sea, for example, in which the old mother loses all her sons to the sea. In the end she simply says “No man at all can be living forever and we must be satisfied.” Even while her heart is breaking. Understatement.

  8. Nancy, I believe that what you’ve said explains ver nicely why we turn to the arts during difficult times.

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