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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