How Novels Help You Grieve

Works of fiction can reconnect us with deep emotional experiences.

Posted Dec 11, 2017

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

By Fred Griffin, MD

As the holidays approach, our thoughts often turn to loved ones who are no longer with us. For those of us who have not been able to more fully grieve our losses, this may be especially difficult—and may catch us unaware. At times, we can get cut off from feelings related to loss which prevents a natural process of grieving from occurring. Over the years, I have learned it is possible to reconnect with feelings about a lost loved one by spending time with works of fiction because reading novels can help you connect to an emotional experience. I have seen this both in myself and in my patients.

Angela

Angela, a professional woman in her mid-thirties came to see me because she felt unhappy—“like the life has been drained out of me.” Two years earlier her mother had died, something about which she had never been very sad. Angela said that she had not felt close to her mother since her parents divorced when she went to college. “Life got busy for each of us. We had our own lives.” Although I felt there was a causal link between Angela’s current sense of lifelessness and her inability to grieve the loss of her mother, this notion was only a remote idea to her.

Rediscovering the Connections

One day, Angela began a session with tears in her eyes. A friend had recommended she read the novel To the Lighthouse, a piece of largely autobiographical fiction written by Virginia Woolf as an effort to grieve the mother she lost thirty years earlier. The first section of the book centers on the lovely maternal figure, Mrs. Ramsay, who is a version of Woolf’s own mother, at a seaside cottage filled with family and guests. Mrs. Ramsay enters each of the character’s lives in ways that involve her unique capacity for knowing and loving those around her. The painter Lily Briscoe represents Woolf herself. Early scenes demonstrate Lily’s deep love for Mrs. Ramsay and longing to know her intimately.

Ten years after Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden death, Lily rejoins the remaining members of the Ramsay family at the cottage and attempts to complete a painting of Mrs. Ramsay. But Lily can find no emotional connection with Mrs. Ramsay that would allow her to begin to paint. This once beloved person was only some distant memory to her now. 

Angela had just completed the last section of the novel the night before this session. In it, Lily goes through a process wherein she remembers how it felt to be close to Mrs. Ramsay and then moves into the full force of what she has lost. 

For really, what did she feel, come back after all these years and Mrs. Ramsay dead? Nothing, nothing---nothing that she could express at all…

Little words…said nothing…For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? Express that emptiness there? To want and not to have…  

The tears ran down her face…’Mrs. Ramsay!’ Lily cried…But nothing happened. The pain increased.

‘Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!’ she cried, feeling the old horror come back—to want and want and not to have…

Lily moved from a disconnected state toward a deep sense of longing, then sadness and mourning. In reading these passages, Angela had felt deeply sad as she recalled special moments doing art projects with her mother long before her parents’ marriage dissolved. It became apparent both to me and Angela that an emotional connection with her mother had been restored, something that led her to further the grieving process as her therapy moved forward.

Lincoln in the Bardo

But it was only when I read the 2017 Man Booker award-winning novel by George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo, that I realized certain ways I continue to grieve the death of my father nearly forty years ago. This remarkable work of fiction is inspired by reports that Abraham Lincoln visited the tomb of his 11-year-old son, Willie (who had died of typhoid fever), and held his son’s body. The novel creates a fictional cemetery in which the spirit inhabitants perceive themselves to be only “sick” and living in a Bardo state—a place of existence between life and afterlife. Including Willie Lincoln. 

In this postmodern novel, Saunders brings all of his writerly crafts to bear to make us believe in a surreal world in which the dead and the living can enter one another and feel something of the closeness that once was. I was swept up in the sensory experience of these characters in the Bardo who were fighting to return to a now re-envisioned life among the living. The urgency of this longing is especially powerful as the spirit of Willie comes near as Lincoln holds his son’s body.

As the lad stood nearby, uttering many urgent entreaties for his father to look his way, fuss over and pat him.

Later in the novel, Willie is able to accept that he is dead and somehow communicate with his father in a way that Lincoln is able to let his son go.

His boy was gone; his boy was no more.          

His boy was nowhere; his boy was everywhere.

Reading these lines as the holidays approach, I recalled a memory of sitting close to my father in his hospital room as he lay dying of cancer. He would intermittently drift off to sleep in the middle of a conversation. During a brief moment when my father was especially lucid, I had the irrational belief that he would recover from his illness.

Though my father is nowhere among the living, I can more fully appreciate the manner in which my feelings of loss and love for him remain alive in the Bardo of my mind. And I am aware of my wish for him to return to join the family at this time of year and for us to have the conversations that might have been.

About the Author: Fred L. Griffin, M.D. is a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who practices in Dallas, Texas.  He is on the faculty of the Dallas Psychoanalytic Center and Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and UT Southwestern Medical School.  His book, Creative Listening and the Psychoanalytic Process, which explores the clinical uses of literary fiction, was published last year.  For more information: fredlgriffin.com.