Today on Skiffy and Fanty, we have a guest post from Shanna Germain. Shanna is the author of myriad stories, books, and games, as well as the co-owner of Monte Cook Games. Her most recent works include Numenera: The Poison Eater, No Thank You, Evil!, and Torment: Tides of Numenera—an Explorer’s Guide.
The Importance of Grief in the Stories we Tell
Our movies, shows, and books often tell us a particular story about grief. It goes like this: two people are grieving about the same thing — the loss of a child, let’s say — and they grieve differently—one wants to talk about it and one doesn’t, let’s say. And this fundamental difference in how they grieve tore them apart. And eventually they excised that grief thorn and were able to move on. Maybe together, maybe apart.
Of course, those of us who have been through grief understand that this story is a fallacy, although it’s a very appealing one. Because it’s simple. Because it has an end. You can see why it shows up in our stories again and again. If one of the purposes of story is to give us hope, to teach us how to survive and endure, then presenting grief as a flat line with INCITING INCIDENT on one end and a giant period on the other and saying YOU ARE HERE at some point along the way does those things.
But we know, in our saddest hearts, that grief doesn’t work like that. It’s not a straight line. It’s not even a staircase. It’s a child’s scribble, done in a cheap ballpoint pen on the back of a magazine in the hospital waiting room. Grief, for most of us is wavy and cyclical. Unending (although ideally, easier with every circle). It loops back over itself. You can barely tell where it begins. Grief is “this minute I want to talk about our dead son” and “this minute I need to fold his clean shirts for when he comes home” and “next week I can’t even say his name.” Grief breaks us apart not because our straight grief lines don’t match another person’s, but because our grief squiggles don’t overlap long enough for us to see and understand each other in the moment.
I often (probably too often) make the joke that my writing topics are sex and death. If someone asks why (and they almost always do), I’ll say because those are the moments when we are our most human, naked selves. The moments when we must make a hard choice about what kind of people we are. I like to break that moment open, I’ll say, and see why people make the choices they do. I’ll say it with confidence, closure, and a sense of whispered secrets.
That swagger is misdirection. I don’t want you to ask what I’m really writing about. Because the answer is always, always grief.
Grief. Say it. When was the last time you said grief out loud? We never say it. It hurts to say it. It starts out so strong — grrrr. And then ends on this long exhale from the soul of your stomach. The sound of despair on the breath. It leaves you with nothing on the inside. A heavy hollow that you don’t know how to fill.
My first published poem was written while I was a volunteer firefighter and EMT. It was a grief poem, no doubt, couched in sex and death. Looking back, I see how many times I shied away from grief in that poem, how many times I did a disservice to the reader and to grief itself by cloaking it in metaphor. It’s a fine poem, but like so many of our stories about grief, it’s a lie.
Despite more than two decades as a writer, I still can’t look grief in the eye. Not quite.
But in the last half of 2016, as I was writing and editing my newest novel, The Poison Eater, grief came for me. Not once. Not twice. But three times (plus). It leaned in and whispered the names of the dead in my ear. Every time I turned from it, grief tangled its sad scent in my hair and said, “Look. Listen.” Every time I sat down to write, grief ouija-ed my fingers across the keyboard, forcing them to spell words I was afraid of.
While I was writing The Poison Eater, my uncle called and left a rambling message on my cell phone. He was drunk, as he often was, and I didn’t take the time to call him back. A few days later, he drank enough to put himself into a coma. He died shortly after. (Grief accompanied by guilt is its own special squiggle. And by special I mean awful.)
While I was revising The Poison Eater, both of my grandpas died within a week of each other. In fact, I was on the way back from one funeral when I got the call that my other grandpa had died. (It seems hard to imagine, even as I write that. If it was fiction, it would get cut for being unbelievable. But life is always a lie and death is always truth and death gives no fucks about whether or not its actions make for a good fiction.)
While I was editing The Poison Eater, Donald J. Trump became president-elect of the U.S. Whatever that might mean for you, it meant deep grief for me, as a bisexual woman, as an activist, as a creative person, as a human being. It’s a different grief than losing a family member, but it’s still a grief. One that isn’t for me, but for the world as a whole. As John Coffey in Stephen King’s The Green Mile put it, “I’m tired of people bein’ ugly to each other. It feels like pieces of glass in my head. I’m tired of all the times I’ve wanted to help and couldn’t.”
Edited to add: While writing this essay about grief, two of my heroes died in the same day. Carrie Fisher and Richard Adams both flipped off the world in their own ways and moved on to other galaxies and greener pastures. (Maybe death does understand a little something about story after all).
Grief changed me. It changed the novel. I needed to tell myself a story where grief was real and awful and fucked up and alive and ruinous. Where it was an unending squiggle crafted by a young hand in ink and tears. Where it was all-consuming, all-destroying, and unrelenting.
And where it was also survivable.
I know I’m not alone. 2016 was a year filled with grief for so many people. We are all struggling to find our way to tell grief’s story, to do it justice without breaking our own hearts irreparably in the process. I predict that many of the stories we tell in the coming years will deal heavily with grief. We will depict it in all its horror, we will give it life with our exhalations, and then we will remember once again how to breathe in and make ourselves whole.