Writer’s Craft #78 – The Absence of Things

Kristi Petersen Schoonover 2011
Kristi Petersen Schoonover 2011

Kristi Petersen Schoonover, a ghost story writer who still sleeps with the lights on, is a three-time Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony resident. Her dark emerging YA thriller, Bad Apple is coming from Vagabondage Press Books in September. Haunt her at www.kristipetersenschoonover.com.

Recently, a friend’s father died. Both of my parents are gone, so I suppose that’s why I felt compelled to send, instead of a Hallmark, an honest letter about this specific kind of grief.
I wrote on how she could expect to feel—about how I’d felt. The piece ended with “All you’ll see is the absence of things—an empty cup, the Father of the Bride’s vacant chair. Everyone will live a romance while you are trapped in a ghost story. And that’s okay.”
Once it was mailed, I felt better, and it hit me that I’d never allowed for, much less expressed, my own grief.
Soon after, though, I was horrified by the letter’s inappropriateness. I waited for the severing call.
It never came. Instead, she said, “You understood exactly what I was feeling—and gave me permission to feel it.”
I’d never felt such a strong connection to a reader. It was because I’d indulged in something our society discourages: sadness. It’s expected we ignore the absence, pish posh the ghost story and fast forward.
Yet if we do, we remain haunted.
When we honor sadness, we fill the cup, offer Dad’s chair to another. We fill an absence in ourselves—and, more importantly, we fill an absence in our readers.

7 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #78 – The Absence of Things

  1. Beautifully expressed. I wonder how much of the dark stories people read are to compensate for that enforced brightness in their lives. They are not permitted grief, anxiety and sorrow in real life (“Get over it; Move on; Don’t bring other people down”) so they seek release of those feelings in fiction. You are so right; there is this pathological aversion in modern culture to expressions of grief and sorrow. We don’t feel sympathetic in the presence of it; we feel awkward. You followed your instincts, did what felt natural to you, and then worried it was a social faux pas. In truth, your instincts were absolutely right, and your reader knew it. You were both able to share a moment of illicit honesty.

  2. There was nothing inappropriate about your response at all. In doing that, you acknowledged the truth of what your friend is and will experience and you extended a true hand of friendship not shown by mumbled condolences of others. Good on you for following your heart and not the “expected” actions (which are not expected at all; most people are so completely in denial of the truth of mortality, they don’t know what to say at all).

    On reflection, I believe some of the popularity of ghosts and ghoulies comes from exactly that.

    The message society and marketing pushes in from all sides is: Don’t smoke, don’t drink, exercise daily, sleep, eat properly, use products “A”-“T” and get surgeries “U” – “Z” and you can be young forever. Death is optional. We know it isn’t true but humans are masters of self-deception. The result is most of us don’t have the courage to do what you did. Most of us writers also don’t have the courage to let that feeling populate our work and bring that feeling of truth to our work.

    Good on you. Keep the faith.


    – John

  3. Thank you, Justine and John. I have a friend who just got into Harvard Divinity School because her vision is to work on a study of “The Language of Grief” in our culture — whereas other cultures seem to have ways of dealing with it, we don’t. In a way, I was fortunate to be able to write about this experience shortly after it happened. It was almost magical in a way, and I think from here forward I will follow my heart more than what is socially dictated. Maybe, if we all did that, we would begin to have a better “language of grief.”

    1. YES! YES! YES! to what you are saying about “the language of grief.” I’ve done a lot of research on afterlife myths and burial customs for my soon-to-be-released novel (set in the afterlife) and one thing I have found (and which the MC points out in the story) is that burial used to be about preparing the dead for the next life, but over time it’s become about comforting the living. Traditional wakes and such were days, even weeks long – a very public display of grief. Now it’s two or four hours (after work, when it’s convenient for people to go, because God forbid we be inconvenienced by grief). Gone are the rituals of mourning – public mourning clothes, a year-long period of confinement and mourning. Now, companies dole out bereavement leave based on an assumption of a person’s worth to the survivor – a spouse, you get five days off. Parent or child, three days. Grandparent, two days. Other – one day. Because, obviously, our sadness/sense of lost is based a) purely on biology and b) is time limited. Etc. I could go on, but basically, yes, we have lost our language (both verbal and non-verbal) of grief. 😦

  4. Terri, reading that really shocked me. I think you’ve articulated what our society has done with “grief” beautifully — you’re right. As many times as I’ve read about the past — the Egyptians, for example, with their elaborate customs (and going so far as, in some cases, expecting others to die alongside the Pharaoh, like his servants) — I’ve never seen such a simple, clean, stark comparison between the past and today. Seeing it in print like that made it all very clear. When my Dad died I was given two days off (fortunately, I have a wonderful job, and they let me have two weeks without batting an eyelash). And this may be a little off-topic, but I’ve noticed an increase in the past several years: many writers who’ve lost someone very close to them funnel that grief into their writing, especially in the form of memoir. I wonder if some of those books would have been written had the writer been given the proper time — and process — to grieve.

    John — yes, it’s summer! But I also think this is a difficult topic for many people to discuss. It’s hard to be open. I know what a rough time I had just writing that little blurb. But I’m glad you’re enjoying the conversation. I know I am.

  5. Absolutely, Kristi, on the Egyptians and other cultures! Even further back the Aztecs thought that life and death were part of the same process – that death preceded life/birth (not that death followed life). To their minds, first a plant dies and then it comes back again the next year. So, again, their preparations were for the dead, not the living.

    I remember a story from years ago – from Reader’s Digest, I think – in which a woman ran a small convenience store and she would always ask her customers how they were doing and they always answered “fine.” One day, she said to one of her regulars that she was having a bad day. The regular looked at her in shock for a moment and then broke down and said she, too, was having a rotten day – she’d recently lost her husband and yet, she had to go around saying she felt “fine” when she really didn’t, because that’s what’s expected. People are shocked if we say we aren’t fine. The two women gave each other permission to be open about how they were feeling and after that they had a little in-joke where the customer would come in and announce she was feeling rotten. She said it was very liberating to be able to say that outloud 🙂 This story was in my mind when my mother died – very suddenly, very tragically, very unexpectedly. I would be sitting at my desk at work and suddenly burst into random tears. I share an office with my boss and she would say, “uh oh, bad day!” She was very understanding but still, I felt guilty for my grief. I felt guilty for bringing it in to work and inflicting it on other people. Six months after our mother died, a coworker expressed surprise that our father – deeply in love with my mother and married to her for 36 years at the time of her death – wasn’t “over it” (her death) yet. “It’s been plenty of time.”

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