Storytelling is an ancient art that ties humanity together across history and culture. Everyone loves a good story. We love stories that we can see ourselves in and that helps us to imagine an experience beyond our own. Sometimes we learn about ourselves through stories.
Sometimes we can observe in a character in a book, what we cannot face in ourselves.
Grief is something we have trouble facing. It is a painful experience and the temptation to avoid it, to push it away, and to distract ourselves from it is understandable. In order to get past grief, we need to make room for it. This happens best when we feel supported to acknowledged and honoured it and not have it minimized or denied. This triangulation of circumstance rarely arrives at the exact time it is needed. For this reason, grief can become complicated.
Grief, having been pushed down and denied, it comes out in unexpected and unsolicited ways, sometimes physically or disguised as depression or irritability.
Sometimes we turn to other substances to avoid it and these addictions can increase and prolong our suffering.
There is a way through. Grief can be approached gently, from the side. It doesn’t have to be challenged head on.
Here’s how novels can help:
- Novels can support grief vicariously, through stories that describe the experience of others. It tells you that you are not alone, someone else has experienced this, or been able to imagine the experience of grief.
- Stories can give hope. Sometimes stories demonstrate a way through grief and show that it is possible to process grief.
- Sometimes stories describe emotions that the reader may have avoided or not understood, placing them outside of the body of the reader, for the reader to observe and consider. When this happens, the reader may find their own emotions responding to the plight of the characters, and be able to grieve for themselves by grieving for the character.
- Another way that novels can help the grief process is by helping us to make meaning of our loss. Sometimes we can see our own story in a new light when we make connections between ourselves and the characters experiences in the story. Things we hadn’t considered can sometimes bring to light reasons for various feelings that we’ve been having or avoiding.
I recently came across an article by Fred Griffin who described how specific novels had helped his clients process grief that seemed to be stuck. One client had lost her mother two years earlier and couldn’t shake her overwhelming sadness until a friend recommended “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf. She found connections with her own experience the that helped her to make sense of her loss and to grieve. Griffen shares about his own experience reading George Saunders book Lincoln in the Bardo, and how he was able to resolve his own grief related to the death of his father 40 years ago. You can read the whole article here: How Novels Help you Grieve By Fred Griffin, MD
In “The Novel Cure – An A-Z of Literary Remedies,” * Ella Berthoud & Susan Eldurkin recommend a variety of novels depending on the type of ailment you are suffering. For “Broken Heart” they recommend “As it is in Heaven” by Niall Williams, a story about a man who lost his wife and daughter in a car crash and the years of grief and then healing that followed for him and his son. For “Sadness” Berthed & Eldurkin recommend The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B by J.P. Donleavy which the authors describe as “A novel so steeped in sadness, so embodying its lilting melodies, that the emotion seem to seep from the page by osmosis and mingle with our own, providing comfort in the inescapable knowledge that, in their world, deep sadness exists.” But note that “there are wondrous joys along the way” and “gentle humour throughout.” Under the topic “Cry, in Need of a Good” Berthoud & Eldurkin list “The ten best novels to make you weep” including, “A Lesson before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines; “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green; “Tess of the D’Ubervilles” by Thomas Hardy and “One Day” By David Nicholls and more.
A few years ago I read “Ghost Rider – Travels on the Healing Road” by Neil Peart (the drummer from the rock band, Rush) a creative non-fiction account of a long motorcycle ride Neil took after the death of his wife and daughter in the previous year. While, not a novel, the slow pace, description of the landscape and Neil’s own process provided a glimpse and the ability for me to share his mindful, intentional grieving process.
Allowing oneself to feel is a huge part of grieving and of processing emotions, in general. Read a story and notice what you are feeling, don’t push it away, just let it come. If you find that you are overwhelmed by unexpected emotions, find someone to talk to about it. You are not alone. Grief is a human response to loss, sharing it can make it lighter.
I wish you hope and peace as you explore your grief.
Also check out Grief Without Death
And Good Grief Work
*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.