Published on August 11th, 2013 | by Amy Jane Helmericks

(Life & Fiction) Sadness: Grieving Through Fiction

Not-crying during movies was once a matter of pride with me.

Granted, I guarded myself carefully. I chose to avoid things that included tears in the forecast. There is so much real to cry over, I always said. Why waste my limited tears on such filmy, foolish feelings that aren’t even mine? I felt like I was being manipulated and refused to play that game.

I didn’t remember I’d come to this mindset because of a traumatic event.

In grade school, I read the book Bridge to Terabithia, a story that has been called a modern-day-classic by some, which basically means enough people were surprised by a book they discovered themselves that they insisted other people read it as well.

It is a story about loss. It was written by Katherine Paterson, in response to her son’s grief when he lost his best friend at a young age. I cried when I read that book.

I cried like I didn’t know I was allowed to. My mom did the right thing. She redirected my siblings, held them off. She let me cry.

But I couldn’t figure out why I was so sad. I thought this kind of emotional reaction was wrong. The story wasn’t real. The people I mourned with never existed. I didn’t understand this empathetic sadness, and it scared me.

From then on, I spent most of my conscious reading and movie-watching avoiding anything that might invoke a similarly intense response.

I forgot that I’d ever cried at a story. I prided myself at having a firm grasp on reality and separating myself from the sentimentality of those lumpy, leaky women who cried at weddings. Who cried even at movies with weddings in them.

Then, in 2006, fewer than three months after my youngest child was born, my dear-friend grandmother died.

Later that year I read The Thirteenth Tale, and I cried. I didn’t even identify that closely with much in the story, but I cried hard.

sad face sadness emotionI began to consider that tears might not always be about exactly what started us crying.

Penelope Trunk, a career coach and blogger, once said something that I’ve co-opted in the paraphrase: “PMS is your body telling you to cry about the stuff you’ve been ignoring all month.”

This is beautiful and freeing because it starts by assigning value to the tears: the stressors that break us open, showing what’s inside, did not create the emotion in some mysterious alchemy. The reality has always been there.

Sadness in Everyday Reality

For now, life just pulls steadily along. My sense of loss over my grandmother is nearly indefinable. It has been followed by other losses. Some of hopes or confidence, some of new, equally precious friends leaving for the rest of this life.

I don’t feel compelled to bury my face in blankets and wail, but sometimes I still want to, even when it doesn’t seem to fit. I struggle with feeling like I haven’t grieved enough and the sense I’ve missed my chance, and the conviction that I need to soldier on in life, since (obviously) I have no other choice.

Then there’s that part of me that still struggles with minimizing language, questioning if I’m over-tired (why am I still awake?!), or over-stimulated (yes, [that thing that made me cry] was a good story).

Those accusations are self-harming, because they imply that this sadness is not really my emotion. That it’s not a response to my loss, only meaningless (or foolish!) responses to imaginary people, and as a result not honest, or not worth feeling.


More, now, I think the grief I carry is so deep and settled that it is something of a relief to have a reflection to look at. Something outside myself to see and respond to. Good stories provide that. And the best stories offer language and images to move us through the fog.

That loss I grieved at 10 years old, crying for a boy and a girl who never existed? I was crying for myself. For the uprooting of multiple friendships before I ever reached 10. I found in a tenderly written book the expression of the deep loss I experienced, not when friends died, but when they moved away.

For a child, the bodily departure of a friend is not different enough from an actual death to skip the grieving process.

I am thinking of a section from Jane Eyre. Near the beginning she points out, “Children can feel, but they don’t have sufficient power of words to explain or understand their feelings…”

This handicap doesn’t end with childhood.

Feelings exist for a reason. None of them come out of nowhere, and they don’t disappear as cleanly as they come. When we’re struggling with emotions under the surface, like my sense of sadness and loss that I couldn’t articulate, sharing other people’s stories can show us what we don’t know to look for.

We don’t have to know right now what every emotion means, but we can have confidence that none of them are meaningless.

To comment on this article and/or share a movie or book that made you cry, see the blog post Little Women and Tissue Boxes

Life & Fiction image altered from a photo by Kruno Knezevic via Stock.Xchng.

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