Good Grief!

Ronie Kendig has a BS in Psychology and is a wife, mother of four, and avid writer. Her espionage thriller, Dead Reckoning, will release March 2010 (Abingdon Press), and Nightshade, the first book in her military series, Discarded Heroes, will hit shelves July 2010 (Barbour). Ronie is an active member of ACFW, where she works with the conference appointment coordinator and on the conference planning committee. She is also a speaker and teaches lit studies at her local homeschool co-op.

Visit Ronie at her website or her blog.

My mother was an Irish immigrant and became naturalized almost 18 years after she first came over as a nanny. Working hard, she and my father provided for our family. She died 13 years ago. As I’ve tried to write this article, I realized the elements are getting jumbled and . . . well, just a plain mess. That tells me that although I worked through her death, it’s still painful.

Grief. It’s our reaction to the loss of someone or something that we’ve formed an attachment to, and our topic this month. When my mother died, I had little of “her” left:

• Her rings. Carpet cleaners came in one day, and cleaned out the rings.
• A white serving bowl. One of my kids dropped it while doing the dishes.
• Clothes. They went to Goodwill. Or the trash.
• Waterford crystal pieces. All that remain of her besides photographs and memories. And I treasure them, take brutal, painstaking care of those pieces.

The point? A character does not have to lose a loved one to experience grief, which comes in many shapes and forms. Has your heroine lost her job—yet again? It’s also as subjective as every other emotion a human can experience.

There are two primary forms of grief: natural grief and prolonged grief. Natural grief has a transition process: denial (you can’t really mean to fire me), anger (who do you think you are?), bargaining (please, I’ll do anything to keep this job . . . ), depression (the gallon of chocolate chunk ice cream), and acceptance (I’m an intelligent person; I’ll get another job).

If only grief were that easy and “tidy”, completing one stage and moving on to the next one. In fact, it’s becoming more commonly accepted that personality, culture, spiritual and religious beliefs play a large role in how a person works through grief. For writers, it’s an opportunity to weave additional details into your book!

Let’s step back and look at that painful experience. Some characters might go through the “normal” stages of grief. But many do not. What happens to the character who hasn’t moved on from the anger or denial stage? This is often where prolonged grief comes in—a person not dealing with the painful experience.

Their lives are going to be wrecked because grief is not just an emotional response. It will bleed into every aspect of their lives—cognitive, behavioral, emotional. They won’t be able to think clearly, or function normally. This can be destructive. Their personality might change, or they might do things they normally never would’ve considered.

In my military series, The Discarded Heroes, being published by Barbour, the characters are dealing with combat-related PTSD in one form or another. For Max, he presents this through intense anger and a volatile temper. A quiet man, Colton was a sniper and is very introspective. As a result, he suffers debilitating flashbacks. Grief is (like just about everything else) subjective to the character, and so are its processes.

A pain-filled experience should be exploited and hammered. The character will be prodded to deal with the pain, and/or pushed to the edge of who they are. They should face things that will force them to confront and deal with the thing that has kept them trapped in their grief.

Grief, naturally, will have a lot of emotion attached to it, but don’t forget the cognitive and behavioral aspects. And remember, a strong story will wreak havoc with your hero/heroine and leave them changed.