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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Treatment Tuesday - Suppressed Grief

This week's assessment is from Elizabeth, who is writing a futuristic sci-fi novel about Brandon* and Anna*. Brandon is perpetually cheerful and almost never serious. Anna is quiet, reserved, and hard to tell what she's thinking. One might think Anna doesn't like you because she's blunt and sarcastic, but has a good heart deep down. The two have a rocky relationship together after Branden gets Anna out of a bad home life when they are teens. They have a relationship all through high school, and Brandon learns to read her very clearly.

When he goes to college, she joins the military. Brandon tries to stay in contact with her, but Anna couldn't handle the long distance aspect, especially when she thought she feel in love with someone else. Brandon drops out of college and joins the military, and just as he hoped, they get stationed on the same ship together. He tries to re-establish their relationship, but Anna was gun-shy after all the time that had passed and the fact that the last man she loved had betrayed her, causing her to shun romance.

Elizabeth wants to know: Anna eventually dies, and it's clear she dies for Brandon. However, Brandon doesn't seem to show any of the traditional signs of grief. He acts like his normal, happy-go-lucky self. Does this indicate a lack of depth in his emotion, or does he just fail at processing and showing emotions?

Good grief questions, Elizabeth. Grief is so personal and complex. Earlier on this blog, I did a series on the types of grief as well as a later series on the different facets of grief. I'd encourage you to check those out, because they definitely touch on the type of grief Brandon is displaying.

I'm going to do this assessment under the assumption that Brandon loved Anna, and that his feelings for her were far from shallow. In fact, his feelings were so great that at Anna's death, his brain can not process the loss. He is probably in the Denial phase of grief, refusing to accept the possibility that someone who meant so much to him is no longer living.

If Brandon knows she's dead--maybe he saw it with his own eyes or held her in his arms as she slipped away--then the knowledge is buried in his mind even as he goes about living as if it never happened. If something like the above happens in your manuscript, then there could be a case for a severe traumatic reaction to what happened, such as not believing it did.

You'd have to answer that question: Does Brandon know in his knower that Anna is, in fact, dead? If he doesn't, then this assessment would look quite different, but again, operating on the assumption of more common reactions, I'm going to assume he knows that she's dead, but just isn't grieving the way everyone thinks he should.

Suppressed grief usually erupts in some form or fashion over time. A person's body just can't handle it. Brandon might start experiencing psychoemotional and physical disturbances, such as blurred vision, gastrointestinal disturbances, and heart palpitations. (Notice I didn't say psychosomatic--which is in the person's mind.) These are real problems that seem to have no biological basis.

I'd consider giving Brandon one or two of those physical symptoms, at least, to make his level of grief more realistic. A perfectly healthy man having heart palpitations of chest pains would baffle doctors until it slipped out that he had recently experienced the death of a loved one. (Hopefully the doctors would refer him on to a therapist at that point.) 

It is said that the two main healing variables for grief are talk and tears. Now not everyone is going to cry and not everyone is going to talk...but most everyone does one or the other as their primary way to cope. Brandon's happy-go-lucky self will eventually need to peter out into one of these modes, and it would need to be a dramatic, climactic release for him (and for the expectant reader) or readers could have a couple of reactions:

1) Brandon didn't care about Anna as much as he said he did. For some reason, people believe the the amount of tears is somehow a testimony to how much the person was loved. We expect to see people grieving at funerals, and those who aren't are looked at circumspectly.

2) Brandon is going to explode. Depending on if there is tension in your story surrounding his lack of grief, and his acquaintances being worried about him, etc., the reader might begin to think Brandon's just going to go postal, and this would not be a good release, obviously.

3) Brandon is crazy and thinks Anna didn't die. Readers might think he is in need of professional help to get him through the grief.

The reality is that Brandon's world has changed. A reader will probably go along with a portion of the book where Brandon isn't grieving "appropriately," but after a while, they are going to come to expect him to have that catharsis...that acknowledgment that his world has changed and that he's going to try to adapt and reconstruct his world to a new reality without Anna.

The key for you as the storyteller is to make Brandon's reaction of suppressed or absent grief realistic, but gauge how long you want to leave him in that limbo state before you ease the minds of your readers. The easiest way would be to include the physical grief symptoms, as any reader would accept the reasoning that he's having those problems because he's not accepting the loss or beginning to grieve.

Good luck to you! Additional comments or questions are always welcome.

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Clar said...

Its sad to think that others judge others when they don't respond in the way it is expected of them.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

Very true, Clar. It is sad. I tried to give the more mainstream expectation to this author, and how far she veers from that will be up to her. I would just hate for a reader to doubt this man's love for the girl who died. Thanks for weighing in.

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.