Portraying Grief Correctly

So often writers get grief over the loss of a spouse wrong, perhaps because unless you have been there, you cannot know the global effect grief has. There are so many mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, even geographical changes thrown at you that it’s almost impossible to understand what is happening.

Grief that has matured, meaning grief that is no longer new and raw, is easier to portray, but even that is often done wrong, since the characters seem to have no yearnings. And grief is so much about yearnings.

One movie that portrayed long time grief well was The Last Dance with Maureen O’Hara and Eric Stolz. O’Hara teared up when she thought of her husband, she treasured the records she had bought of the songs they had danced to (calling them her “memories”), but most of all, she yearned for one last dance from him. And that yearning made her grief real. We who have lost our mates eventually come to terms with going on alone, but we all have yearnings for one last kiss, one last hug, one last smile, one last word. Such simple things, but being deprived of them underscores our loss.

Another example of grief done right occurred in the old television show Golden Girls, of all places. In that particular episode, Blanche dreams that her husband, dead for nine years, comes home. This is a recurring dream, but instead of bringing her sadness as always, this time the dream brings her peace because in the dream, she got to hug him one last time.

Even though I am doing well two years and four months after the death of my life mate/soul mate, I still yearn for one last smile from him, one last hug, one last visit with him at his store where we met. It seems impossible these yearnings will go unfulfilled for the rest of my life. Like Maureen O’Hara’s character, though, I have my “memories” but in my case they are not shared songs but movies he taped. I’ve been going through his movies, weeding out the ones I will never watch again, and each movie I am keeping makes me remember a conversation we had about the movie, a particular time we watched them, a feeling I once had when he watched the movie with me.

Many of the movies he taped toward the end of his life, like The Last Dance, are about people going on alone after the death of a mate. It almost seems as if he is/was trying to help me find my way through the horror to a new peace. Some of these movies, again like The Last Dance, he edited to take out the parts he didn’t like. So not only do I have movies he taped, I have versions no one else in the entire world has. For example, he edited out all the flashbacks in The Last Dance, so I never see Maureen O’Hara’s young husband. I only know him through her love, her tears, her feelings about the possessions she is getting rid of in preparation for her own death, and in the stories she tells Eric Stolz and his family. This makes for a stronger story, keeping it all in the present, and it makes the relationship between O’Hara and Stolz more compelling.

But more than that, it makes it my story, a story about a woman yearning for one last moment with the man she loved.

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9 Responses to “Portraying Grief Correctly”

  1. Mary Friedel-Hunt Says:

    Oh, Pat, you hit the nail on the head. Yes, one last smile or hug or word…that yearning will never ever go away and like O’Hara, my eyes fill up at the thought of it. I happened to watch that movie just this week…it allows grief to be what it is.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      When I read this, I had to chuckle since I also just happened to watch the movie this week. We are still in the same cycle.

      I’ve been feeling a bit sadder the last couple of days. Perhaps because of that movie, perhaps it’s just the wheel of grief returning, though without the biting pain of the previous upsurges.

      • Mary Friedel-Hunt Says:

        The wheel of grief continues to turn but yes, it is turning a bit easier as time passes. I miss Bill as much as I always have. I hurt deeply all the time. I feel empty, sad and lost. But the pain is becoming a part of who I am and I am learning to live with it….sadly. I am very lonely for him….

  2. joylene Says:

    I can’t believe I missed The Last Dance. Maybe it was because I thought it was the one about the girl on deathrow? Maybe.

    Happy Wednesday, Pat.

  3. lvgaudet Says:

    I try to make a point of dealing with grief differently every time it comes up in a story, just because nobody deals with it the same way as another.

    I also try to treat it like I do other emotions. There may be a lot of repeating because the human psyche reacts similarly to different stresses, heart beating fast, cold sweat, etc, but I try to make a point of mentioning different things. One character might focus on a particular sound, another on a smell, and another on a visual. Those vary too.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      That’s a good way of doing it, especially since everyone loses a different person. If a man dies, the wife loses a husband, siblings lose a brother, children lose a father, parents lose a son. And none of those griefs are the same.

  4. Mary Says:

    I lost my soul mate 16 months ago, and I have really suffered a lot. Nowadays I feel as if I suffer even more because I feel as if I spend more time trying to justify my grief to friends and family than I do actually trying to learn to live alongside it. I have had such a difficult time putting it into words. The loss was so great and creating a new normal for myself has been an uphill battle. I found your blog yesterday and it has been an immense comfort to me. I feel I found it at just the right time. I was beginning to think I was crazy! Thank you so much for writing it, and for continuing to write it.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      You are not crazy. This sort of grief can only be understood by someone who has been there. Until you have experienced the depth of the pain, there is no way to know that we are capable of such pain. But we know. And yes, it is an uphill battle. One of the worst times for me was at 18 months — I began to understand in the depth of my being that his absence was for the rest of my life, and I felt as if he had just died. It taught me to be patient with myself and my grief even if no one else was.

      As you go through my grief posts, feel free to leave messages. No one should have to deal with the continued pain alone.

      Wishing you peace as you try to create a new normal for yourself.


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