In the light of the recent fourth anniversary of my partner David’s death I have put together this piece on how writers can use their experiences of grief to enhance their work and how I have used the experiences myself.
Death is a far from easy subject to discuss. In the so-called enlightened twenty-first century we feel far more comfortable talking about sex than we do about death and grief. Yet sex is not automatically guaranteed in life whereas death is. It is an inescapable fact. We are currently living so one day we will die. Death does not discriminate; it takes people whether they are young or old, gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight, male, female or transgendered, Hindu, Christian, Muslim or Jew. It doesn’t care whether you have one cent or a million dollars in the bank.
In the time-period of the Lynchcliffe series (1870s – 1920) death was an acceptable fact. It was a common everyday occurrence no matter what its cause. People dealt with the death of loved ones with a kind of stoical acceptance. It doesn’t mean that people did not shout, scream or vent their grief because they did; it was just considered more acceptable.
If you are fortunate enough to have never experienced the death of a loved one then you will probably not read past this point. I know from painful experience that grief changes something inside of you forever; perhaps reminds you of your own mortality. It is up to you whether you make the personal experience of grief something positive or let it fester. Remember that your departed loved one would want you to be happy and move on with your life. Inability to talk about grief can lead to severe psychiatric or psychological problems years down the line. This extract from Divided Loyalties: Lady Lynchcliffe’s Story shows this. In this extract the new Lady Lynchcliffe is talking to Dr Pargeter following the death of her father-in-law, Lord Jeremiah Lynchcliffe
“How is His Lordship coping?”
“Better for I let him cry about it. My father always said that tears were the best thing for grief.”
“Your father was right.” Dr Pargeter said. “I was at medical school with a young man who had lost his father at the age of fifteen but never shed a tear. Thought it would let his mother down I suppose. But he went to pieces one day when dissecting a cadaver in anatomy class as it suddenly occurred to him that he was possibly cutting up someone else’s father.”
“What happened to him?” Helena asked.
“He left medical school that much I do know. He was a very gifted young man and he would have made it as a doctor had he been allowed to grieve and cry for his father at the right time. What I’m trying to say Lady Lynchcliffe is this; let Marcus grieve properly now and offer him all your support for he knows you understand what losing your father is like.”
“I will.” Helena said.
Men feel it is not acceptable to cry at any time but it is when you are dealing with the death of a loved one. Men, unlike women, find it harder to get to the emotional heart of the matter and therefore their grief often manifests in physical, possibly violent ways.
When David died I was seeing a psychologist. His Macmillan nurse referred me as she felt it would help me being as I was David’s primary carer. I found it a great help to be able to talk about my feelings and I went on seeing her until just after the first anniversary of his death in September 2009.
Talking about death and grief is one thing; writing about it is another matter entirely. Unless you are writing exclusively about immortal beings and/or gods then you have to accept that the subject will rear its head at some stage or another. As writers we must be prepared to deal with the subject irrespective of our personal experience.
There is a wealth of literary works on the subjects of death and grief; ranging from non- fiction to poetry. Arguably one of the best known is A Grief Observed where celebrated Christian writer C. S Lewis writes about the death of his wife, Helen Joy Davidman. If you are atheist, agnostic or of another religious faith entirely then this book may not help you but I mention it because it is well-known.
Lynchcliffe series hero Lewis Franklin reacts angrily to the news that his beloved nephew, Daniel, the closest thing he has to a son, has drowned on RMS Titanic.
He stared hard at Mrs Halliwell shocked at the sense of rage rising in him. Abe’s death had numbed him but Daniel’s made him angry and he clenched his fists in an effort to control the mounting black dog of rage.
“How can tha’s God allow this?” He shouted bringing his clenched fist crashing down onto the table and sweeping his half empty cup onto the floor where it smashed. “I mean the Titanic. I have done my best to live a life without harming anyone. There were innocent bairns on that ship for Christ’s sake! Why?”
Jenkins soothed him as best he could but Franklin pushed him away.
“I stopped believing in God a long time ago.” He seethed. “I was brought up to believe in a loving god but evidence has shown him to be anything but. So much for mercy for what mercy is there when tha is waist deep in freezing water fighting exposure and feeling one’s muscles tensed so hard tha can’t move. Daniel could swim for I taught him but no one had a chance to swim in that. So much for a fucking unsinkable ship! If they had not claimed that so often God would not have acted in this way. I have lost a young man whom I respected and loved like a son and I will never forgive tha’s God for that Mrs Halliwell. Never.”
There was a spark of rage in Franklin’s blue-grey eyes and Jenkins stepped back in front of Mrs Halliwell shielding her although they knew Franklin was not angry with them but with life’s tragedy Jenkins saw the anger burn in Franklin’s eyes and tried to restrain him but Franklin pushed him aside and walked out without looking back.
He headed off to his flat to be alone.
“Damn you God!” he shouted. “Damn you! Have you not already taken enough of the people I loved? Tha should have taken me instead of my nephew and I wish to God tha had. Daniel was a good man and he deserved better than that as did all those people whose lives you cruelly took on that ship! I hate you with all my being and damn you to hell. By not acting to save those folk it makes tha no better than the devil.”
As quickly as it had come upon him Franklin’s anger abated and he sank to his knees with his head in his hands. In his hands he held the notebook with the story Daniel had written for him many years before and turned the pages slowly as tears flowed down his cheeks. He found that precious letter Daniel had written after his visit to Sycamore Park and reading the childish spelling mistakes made Daniel so real to him that Franklin lay on the floor and cried himself to sleep. He wished he had held Daniel a little closer that last time and told him one more time how much he loved him and how proud he was of him. The only comfort he felt was that Daniel was now with his parents in that place beyond death and right now Franklin wished with all his heart that he was there with them. They were together now united in death and Franklin felt a huge well of loneliness welling inside him. The pain of his loss was like a knife in his breast and with that dawned the sobering knowledge that he was truly now the last of the Franklin male line.
Franklin has not had an easy life for he has lost many people who he loved. He was educated at a church school where he was doubtless taught to believe in a loving and benevolent God whom his life experience has shown to be anything but. I can totally relate to how he feels. You can get your own copy of Eye of the Storm: Lewis Franklin’s Story on Kindle or in paperback.
In my current work in progress, Prescription for Romance: Hamish George’s Story Hamish George is helpless when he loses his wife of less than a year.
Meredith clung to Hamish and he held her tightly. He knew every aspect of contact heightened his own chances of contracting typhus, but at this point he didn’t care. For the thought of life without her seemed intolerable.
“Don’t be alone Hamish. Find someone.”
“I promise,” he whispered, knowing as he did that the chance of him being able to keep that promise was remote at best. For what could compare to a man’s grand passion? Although Hamish strained to hear his wife’s words, he could hear voices carry from the downstairs hallway as two sets of footfalls ascended the stairs.
“Goodbye Hamish. I love you so much, and I’m so sorry.”
“I’m sorry too lass. I wanted us tae grow old together and have bairns.”
“We would have had beautiful bairns Hammy.”
He found that he didn’t mind her using his sister’s pet-name for him at this moment. He pulled her close and kissed her softly on the lips.
The moment after his final kiss her body went limp in his arms, her breathing slowed then he heard her exhale her last breathe. Her chest ceased to rise and fall. Hamish held her body, rocking with her swiftly. He let out a heart-wrenching wail. Tears flowed like endless rivers; his emotions no longer needing constraint.
Hamish’s father holding his leather treatment bag and Morag stood watching from the doorway, alas it was too late. Hamish Alexander George was a widower at the tender age of eighteen years.
Through his heart-breaking grief something positive happens as Hamish discovers a genuine vocation for medicine rather than simply going to medical school because his father is a doctor. Your grief can be channelled either negatively or positively. It is up to you to make the best you can of it.
The Lynchcliffe series is dedicated to David’s memory. It is a story of love, loss, betrayal and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. None of the one star hatchet job reviews have yet dared venture into the personal and woe betide them if they do.
In some ways I find writing death scenes difficult because it means I have to relive the feelings of helplessness associated with watching your loved one die. I have to capture those feelings in a way the reader can understand. David and I were not married but I relate to widowhood because that was what I felt like after he died. I termed myself a common-law widow. I feel a close affinity with Lady Lynchcliffe because she experiences the loss of the husband she loved.
In Divided Loyalties: Lady Lynchcliffe’s Story sisters Celia and Helena have to deal with the grief resulting from the tragic death of their beloved parents in a tragic accident. Telling someone their loved one has died is difficult. I had to tell David’s friend, Adrian, that David had died and it is easily one of the most difficult visits I have ever had to make.
Helena, Marcus and Jeremiah were relaxing in the drawing room when Jenkins knocked.
“Come!” Jeremiah called.
Jenkins entered the room.
“Constable Merrick is here to see you, Mrs Lynchcliffe.” He said.
“What have you been up to now, Helena?” Jeremiah teased although his smile disappeared quickly on sight of Merrick’s pale strained face.
“Mrs Lynchcliffe?” Constable Merrick faltered. How on earth could he find the words to tell this beautiful gentle girl that her dearly loved parents were dead?
“What is it, Constable Merrick?” Fear clutched at Helena’s heart by the severe gravity of his expression.
“I’m afraid there is no easy way to say this.” Merrick fought to keep the tears pricking his eyes at bay. “There has been a dreadful accident which must have occurred in the storm last night. It would seem that your parents’ pony trap went over the hump bridge bout mile or so back. From what Sergeant Ford and myself; as well as the two lads who discovered the accident can discern the pony lost its footing on the wet bridge and in trying to regain control the trap went over and plunged onto the river bank. Your father was crushed beneath it and it would appear he died from severe injuries.”
“And my mother?” Helena’s voice was faint.
“I’m afraid she was with him. From what I have seen she does not appear to have been badly injured but she is dead nonetheless and I would say it was fairly sure she drowned. The pony; a magnificent grey by all accounts is also dead and the vet believes the fall broke her neck. I am so sorry, Mrs Lynchcliffe. “
“Thank you, Constable Merrick.” Helena’s lip quivered as she fought back tears.
“Sergeant Ford says if there is anything we can do you have only to ask. Your parents were so much loved around here.” Both Jeremiah and Marcus were ashen.
“Thank you, Constable.” Jeremiah finally managed to say.
I felt on shaky ground here because both my parents are still alive. Only someone who has experienced the grief of losing both parents together can know if I got it right and I very much hope I did.
Those who know me are aware that motherhood is not, never has been and never will be on my life’s agenda. In consequence I will never attempt to write about the emotional fallout resulting from the death of a child because I have no hope of ever penetrating the depth of feeling that is produced by such events.
Suicide is still a highly emotive issue. In the time of the Lynchcliffe series suicides were viewed as morally reprehensible and not even afforded burial in holy ground. Thankfully they are viewed with somewhat less disdain today but there is still a culture of stigma by association. I have never known anyone who has gone on to commit suicide and I am not a hundred percent sure of my own views on this issue.
In Eye of the Storm a young friend of Franklin’s commits suicide unable to live without his sweetheart who died some months before.
In February 1886 Franklin went for an early morning walk looking for Tam. When he came into the stables he almost froze.
Tam was hanging from a rope from the rafters, his eyes staring at nothing. Franklin felt his cold flesh. He knew that the police may have to come so he did not take the body down although he wanted to. Franklin did not agree with suicide but in this case he thought he could understand. Pinned to his jacket was a note.
Franklin is consumed by false guilt convinced that he could and should have done something. His best friend, Abe Fleming, understands and he tries to convince Franklin that he should not feel bad.
Abe sat patiently while Franklin told him the whole story about what had happened to Diane and Tam’s subsequent grief.
“He looked up to me Abe and I let him down. I didn’t give him enough time. I feel so guilty for if I had known his plans I could have saved him.”
“That’s why he didn’t tell tha lad.” Abe said. “I remember when it happened to me and it took many a year to shift the guilt. Often there are no signs for those who make a big show about wanting to kill themselves are seeking attention and would not really do it. It’s the quiet ones tha needs to watch.”
“I didn’t watch for him carefully enough Abe. “ Franklin showed Abe the note that Tam had pinned to his clothing before killing himself. Abe read it.
“He thought highly of tha lad. I can relate to the pain he went through and he was only young. It’s a tragic waste Lewis and doubly so for the lass was also only young. You will soon realise that tha is not to blame. “
I don’t think that Franklin ever really gets over this. He just tries to carry on with his life as he believes Tam would have wanted him to do, That is all any of us can do in the face of death but it is not easy. If you are a writer then you are more fortunate for you can work through your grief in the lives of your characters.
Judicial death (execution) is also a Lynchcliffe theme when two servants are hanged for the murder of Lord Marcus Lynchcliffe. These two characters exacted no real emotion in any of the characters other than a relief that justice was seen to be done but they also had families and parents and we must never forget that when we execute a character for murder.
Incidentally I am irked whenever I discover a writer has used the word hung with reference to people. Not only is it annoying but it is also grammatically incorrect. When I was at school I was taught that pictures and curtains get hung, people get hanged and I have never forgotten that. The popular word game is called Hangman, not hung man but few people pick up on that.
.I no longer fear death. Whenever and however it happens I know it means I will be with David. We try and give death a face; usually in the form of the black robed skeletal scythe-bearing grim reaper but the fear is still real for some people.
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote about death and dying in the immortal, much quoted poem. Do not go gentle into that good night.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Old age should burn and rave at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I “borrowed” the dying of the light line as a title for the final story in my Lynchcliffe: Seasons of the Heart collection. It is a story I thought I would never have the emotional courage to write. The story, which I will not share from here, details the death of the much loved Lewis Franklin on 2 September 1939, the day before another significant date in twentieth century history. The outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. Franklin is by now 76 years old and he rages against the dying of the light.
You may ask which of the Lynchcliffe series deaths was hardest to write. The answer is that they all were for different reasons.
We play god with our characters. They live or die at our whim which is why we should be responsible in the way we handle the death scene and the grief scenes for the characters left behind. We have to give enough of ourselves to make it real emotionally to engage the reader’s empathy. Even if the character is not popular and rotten to the core we have to show some kind of redeeming qualities else we will have written it for nothing. If you have a personal experience of grief channel it into these scenes. There is part of us in all our writing no matter what genre(s) we write in so use your grief. It can be very therapeutic. Write the scenes even if you don’t include them in the final cut and keep them close so you can look over them when you feel the need.
One of my all time favourite quotations carries the notion of rebirth. It comes from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.
“I go to gather dust and foam for a new body; a little while, a moment’s rest upon the wind and another woman shall bear me.”
To buy the books mentioned in this blog post as well as other Lynchcliffe series titles on Kindle and in paperback visit these links.