Do you know anything about grief? If so, my character Vivian spent 6 months with a group of friends and fell in love with another character. The character he fell in love with head over heels for dies the night after they kiss. How would this grief affect active fighting ?
My grandmother on my mother’s side died when I was eleven, my father died when I was thirteen (the day after my birthday), my dog died a day before my college graduation, and my grandfather on my father’s side died from Alzheimer’s a few years ago. That’s not counting the friends and non-blood related family members who’ve died over the years.
So, yeah, I’ve got a little experience with grief, and grief counseling, and therapy, and… well, other people who’ve also lost friends and family.
I will say upfront that experience with grief can’t be faked when translating it into a fiction. You’ve either lost someone or you haven’t. You will never truly understand until you’ve experienced it yourself. And, if you haven’t, honestly, I hope you don’t join this unhappy club for a very long time.
Grief happens in stages, we consider them as five to be exact. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. There is no one size fits all here, or rules, no guidelines for the amount of time it takes because we work through it in our own time. You can and often do go through all five just to accept the physical truth someone you love has died, then all over again with the emotional fallout in the months even years afterward. It’s possible to go forward and back between the stages, and it isn’t a steady process. I’ve come to terms with a lot of the deaths in my life, but some took around a decade to reach the acceptance stage.
In initial the months after my father died, I waited to hear his car coming up the driveway at the time he usually arrived home from work (around 5:30). Anytime the doorknob turned, I’d feel a small bit of hope that it’d be him walking in. I still hope, sometimes, nearly twenty years later, that he’ll come through the door.
I tried to hold on to what he sounded like when I realized a month later I was forgetting. I managed a single word, the name of a friend’s father.
The problem with writing grief if you’ve never experienced it is this: you will over focus on the emotion and forget the detail.
Grief is not being able to remember where you live when you dial 911 for the ambulance. It’s the adrenaline leaving your hands shaking when you reach for the body, and the cold stiffness beneath your hands. The chalky white skin, and one eyelid half open. A frozen, milky, blue-white pupil pointed nowhere. The faint, sour smell in the air.
The way you shake it, and shake it, and shake it like that’ll bring the body back to life.
The way you still describe it as the body years later instead of referring to it as him and in second person instead of first.
Grief is never being able to watch Oliver and Company again.
This detail is part of why it’s so difficult to describe or write grief
if you’ve never experienced the loss of a loved one first hand.
You’ve also got to describe that loss through the eyes of your character, re-imagine it so the experience is not only tailored to their experiences but laser specific to those exact moments when they learned or came to the realization someone they loved died. One of the first things to understand about death in fiction is that it won’t do the work for you.
My father died a week before my first degree black belt test, and I’d just turned thirteen. I honestly can’t remember much about that week. It was Spring Break, so I didn’t have to go to school. My days were mostly filled with martial arts and emptiness. There were moments I’d remember, then grow sad or try to avoid it by focusing on what was coming ahead of me. People told me how brave I was, clapped when I came back to training a day later, but the truth is that doing that was easier than remembering what happened. I was in the shock stage all the way through the test. Numb to the world, I didn’t feel anything. Not pride, not happiness, not “oh good we’re done now”, nothing at all. It wasn’t bravery, so much as it just was. The world moved around me and the rest of it was gray.
In that moment, I became “the Girl Whose Father Died The Week Before Her Test” in the organization and everyone knew who I was for years afterwards.
However, the moment I really broke down was when I returned to class afterwards and began to cry when one of my classmates pushed a crossword onto my desk that read “Father”. I cried so hard, then I went out into the hallway and cried through the rest of the class that day.
That’s one experience, though. Like I said, there’s no one size fits all and every experience is unique. If you’ve got a character whose lost a lot of people over the years, then it does get easier.
However, if you’re writing a character who experiences death on the regular then their experience is going to be different. You could get someone who numbs themselves out to the world, defers the loss until later, and deals with it then. A person for whom “doing things” is them showing their grief. They could crumple up into a ball, give up and just cry. They could get angry to the point they want to kill the person who took their loved one and want to kill them. They could be compromised to the point of they are incapable performing their job, and need to be scrubbed from a mission for their safety and their teammates.
They could get triggered by the violence to the point where they lock up and can’t mentally face it anymore, where it becomes too much for them to handle. Sometimes, they break all the furniture in their apartment. Sometimes, they don’t clean out the other side of the closet for six years. They may get angry and lash out at those close to them who aren’t experiencing this death as keenly as they are. Or the might do it just because, without reason. They might close themselves off from everyone they know and love. Wall up out of fear of losing another person, find it difficult to build new connections. Become a different person.
Or, rarely, they could be completely fine. Or, seem like they’re fine on the surface. Others who are suffering will get pissed at them if they’re fine. When it seems like you’re fine, others will call you a monster. How dare they.
Grief is not guaranteed to get you killed in combat, but it can. It leads to stupid mistakes because you’re mentally compromised, even when you don’t realize it. We run from it sometimes. It’s so big, and heavy, and dark, crashing down all at once with no easy answers. No platitude satisfies. Numb, angry, stricken, despairing, you can move through these states so rapidly that it’s almost impossible to follow. Grief just is.
In a situation where you need to be able to focus or your life and those around you are at risk, then grief becomes detrimental. If you’re mentally compromised and refuse to recognize it then it will only put others at risk. Many people will insist they are “fine”. That it doesn’t affect them, that they can still work. It does though. It will. As a result, events can be disastrous in the fallout.
Even if they can fight, revenge isn’t satisfying. It’s empty. Grief-fueled rampages will only lead to more sadness and more emptiness and a re-experiencing of the loss all over again. Usually, it causes more tragedy.
How will your character react? I don’t know.
How does grief affect fighting, even years afterward? It can be really bad, my friend. Really goddamn bad.
You’ve got to find an equilibrium in your mind and acceptance, real acceptance too. You can’t just tell yourself you’ve accepted it, and that difference can be difficult to grasp.
Understand loss is not the cause of grief, and not death itself. We will
grieve lost relationships and broken down friendships, when what we
love disappears from our grasp. Don’t assume it’s in the death, look at
the loss and how they feel about them being gone.
As a writer, your answer is they need to find a way to come to terms with this loss and that is a journey without an easily defined destination. I mean “come to terms” and not “get over”. Loss is with you forever, but whether we accept it or it continues to haunt us will be up to the person in question.
From me to you, here are some ways I dealt with my father’s death in my teenage years:
1) I went to counseling.
2) I read all the books of his on the shelf that I could scrounge from my parent’s bedroom, even when I didn’t like them. I still have a few of his fantasy hardbacks squirreled away.
3) I tried to play Star Wars: Tie Fighter.
4) I cried when I tried to tackle the Walkers in Rogue Squadron 2, because I’d always run to him and beg him to help me pass the level.
5) I’d go smell the shirts my mom left when she refused to clean out his side of the closet until they didn’t smell like him anymore. Then, I felt sad all over again.
6) I dedicated my open form during my second degree test to him, and picked a really sappy country song.
7) I read and re-read L.E. Modesitt Jr’s entire “Saga of Recluse” over and over again because Colors of Chaos was the first fantasy book my dad handed me to read.
8) I named my Sovereign Class ship in Star Trek Online after him.
I once sat with another student at college and we commiserated over our shared bond as members of the “Dead Parents Club”, telling stories about how our parents died and laughing about where we were now. To another student, who’d never experienced what we had, this seemed incredibly insensitive, they were confused, and they said so.
We said, “Dead Parents Club”. Then another student who’d recently lost their aunt asked if they could join us, and we expanded to members of the “Dead Relatives Club”.
It’s not all sadness and pain, misery and angst. In fact, if you go this route then it’s not really real. Much as it might seem like it on the surface, grief isn’t the same as literary angst. You need to show, not tell and that begins with actions. Start figuring
out how this loss affects your character before you take a stab at how
it’s affecting their ability to fight. Grief is about individuals, and
there are no easy answers. Only actions, decisions, and struggle for
good or ill.