On Wednesday, February Fourth, my extended family laid to rest my great-uncle. He was 65.
I didn’t know him too well; to me he was just a face, a name, a voice. However, I knew several of his siblings (he is one of eight) very well. It’s strange, how the grief of others can be so poignant, even though one’s own mournful thoughts are limited.
Being the writer I am, I spent quite a bit of time during the visitation on Tuesday and the time before and after the funeral service itself contemplating the emotions of the people around me. This side of the family (my mom’s side) is very expressive. They love to laugh, love to talk, they love being with each other. It’s a pretty awesome feeling, being around so many people who are genuinely interested in just talking with one another (it’s a big group of people, thanksgiving with these folks normally includes a good fifty people, and there’s plenty who don’t make it each year).
During the service itself, however, I found it hard to concentrate on the emotions of others.
Partway through, my Great-uncle’s brother (we’ll call this brother Dan) wheeled himself up to the front. Dan had polio as a child and is confined to a wheelchair most of the time (on occasion he uses a brace). He brought his guitar, and played a song (this song, if you want a listen), a song that fit my deceased uncle very, very well.
The song isn’t what got me. It wasn’t even when Dan messed up in the beginning, or when his voice broke during the last line of the bridge. It was when, after he finished, Dan leaned his guitar against the speaker’s podium, rolled his way over to the casket, and patted it gently.
I think the emotional level in the room tripled.
A little later in the service another of the brothers (we’ll call him… Duane) got up and spoke a little bit.
Let me make a note about this brother for a second. He has the driest, most deadpan sense of humor in the history of sarcasm and humor. He’s just the funniest guy. I love being around him.
He even started his little speech at the funeral with a little play on words.
And then at the end of his words he locked up.
Not just like a little sniffle, choking on a few words, stammering and apologizing. We’re talking muscles tense, head bowed, hands clenched, mouth sealed shut, eyes squeezed closed, body shaking. In short, he lost it.
So did every single female and 80% of the males in the audience.
Oh wow that hurt.
Then one of my aunts said, “You can do it, [Duane].”
He nodded and after a second continued to the end.
The service itself was simple, small, and rather quick. The presiding pastor said a few words, there was a song or two, and that’s it.
But the power of those two moments were what really made it real. I didn’t feel very much because of my great-uncle’s death, I maybe talked to him twice ever. It wasn’t because he didn’t like me, or I him, we just never did. One of those things. But I knew both of these brothers. And they knew him. I’ll admit I just about cried at these moments. Not quite, but close enough (recent polls say I’m 95% Vulcan, 4.9% roman god of fire (coincidentally, also Vulcan), and .1% human, so getting me that close to crying was quite a feat).
Grief and death are used a lot in writing. More than almost any other form of emotion and loss, I’d guess. It’s written well sometimes, but often writers gloss over the grief. They need to get to the next part of the story, there’s no time for the characters to mourn. However, the reader needs those moments of sorrow. Without them the death really means… nothing.
I think writers often portray death and grief badly for one of two reasons:
1. The story isn’t giving them time. Say Tommy dies of a bullet to the head, and the bad guys are chasing his best friend Steve. Steve doesn’t have time to grieve for Tommy. He doesn’t even have time to tell Tommy’s mom and sister he’s dead. So the author, being so busy weaving together this plot of dastardly deeds and climaxing conflict forgets it altogether. At the most, he brings up Tommy’s death once or twice in Steve’s thoughts while Steve is hiding in a trashcan to avoid being killed.
But here’s the deal. If the author doesn’t give the audience, and Steve, time to mourn, to show how much Tommy actually meant, we’re not going to care about him. He’ll be collateral damage, just a number in the body count.
But Tommy shouldn’t be nothing. Tommy is a human being. His family are humans. And above all, Steve is human. If we’re going to care about Steve, he needs to care about Tommy’s death.
Sure the bad guys are coming, but there need to be moments (and more than just a few thoughts about ‘I wish Tommy were here…’) where Steve just doesn’t care anymore about the villains. They took Tommy. Is it worth it to carry on? Is it worth sitting in this trashcan in a stinking alley? Is it worth his own life to continue?
We need the chance to see how Tommy’s death is important. It should impact the world of those around him.
2. The writer hasn’t experienced death and loss. You’ve probably heard how you shouldn’t write romance if you haven’t had experience with it. I think death is similar.
Losses like death and gains like love should be treated with extra caution by those who don’t know what it’s like.
Have you lost someone close to you?
I’m not just talking about your great-great-grandpa who died when you were two.
Have you lost a best friend? A parent? A brother, a sister?
There are no words to describe it.
Especially when the person dies long before their ‘time’.
Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t write death at all if you haven’t lost all your close relatives and friends, but death is serious. Death is a weight your characters will never be able to get rid of.
Treat the death of a character (any character, bad guys included) as if this person was your best friend or your parent or sibling. Treat death seriously.
Treat it like it’s real.
And you might even get us Vulcans to shed a tear or two.