Monday, February 21, 2011

Sad People Don’t Always Act Sad

I don’t listen to songs like Coldplay’s Fix You anymore to motivate my tears to start flowing. I don’t click through picture after picture of my dad saved in our online files, trying to remember the exact sound of his laugh. I still miss him. I recently booked a flight to be with my mom during the anniversary of his death. I’m fully aware the loss etches deep, but I’m finding (what my mom and I call) my new normal.

I want to share something about his death I neglected to mention before. I want to tell you about those first few moments I arrived at the hospital and I want to do this because I think there’s an important lesson for writers in these minutes of disbelief and coming to terms with personal loss.

Sometimes sad people don’t always act sad.

My dad was hooked up to all kinds of machines in the hospital and my flight had landed last. My other sisters were in his room waiting (all but one, but that’s a whole other story for an entirely different time). I needed to say my good-bye. After thanking some wonderful family friends for picking me up from the airport and driving me to the hospital, I bolted for the entrance. I attempted to mentally erase the name they kept calling their GPS. I had a bone to pick with Bertha (or whatever her name was) because she’d steered us the long way.

My suitcase bumped awkwardly along behind me until I finally left it for the wonderful couple to bring in. My clothes were the last thing on my mind. I had to see my father, brain dead as he was.

As soon as the elevator door opened, I raced in the direction of his room. My mom and my oldest sister caught me in a hug after I walked through the glass doors to the ICU.

Just as I planned to break out in a sprint to my dad’s room, I got held up. We got held up.

A petite lady cornered us. My mom introduced me to this small, leprechaun wife. A member of her church…details…her husband…in the room next to my father…basic introduction kind of details…sunk in about as well as a bobber on the end of an inactive fishing line.

I ached to anchor all my attention on my dad. Here’s where I acted a little weird. I shifted my head from my mom to my sister, then back again to my mom and motioned to the leprechaun wife (who couldn’t have been any more mild-mannered and sweet, but also a great deal in my personal space).

Then I said the unthinkable.

I said, “Say hello to my little friend.” (And yes, I used the accent.)

I did. I did say that. And it sank in with her about as well as a bobber on the end of a fishing line. (She didn’t seem to register my comment—thank God!)

I like this memory. It distracts me from all the heart-wrenching stuff to follow. I like thinking about quoting Scarface to a dainty, dear member of my mom’s church. Not because I’m malicious or because I get my kicks from making inappropriate comments, but rather because I understand I didn’t know how to act any other way. I was in shock. And sometimes shock shows itself in odd ways, disguising itself as humor or sarcasm. I like the memory because it helped get me through the next few minutes—some of the hardest I’ve ever lived.

So writers, remember this when you write a sad scene. People will likely surprise you in their grief, their shock, and their reaction to tragedy.

Tears hide until they know it’s safe to come out. Until then Scarface might just make a mess of the place.

Can you think of a time when you or someone you know felt sad but a surprising emotion showed up instead?

*photo by flickr


  1. This is such a true post. When my grandpa died I was so shocked. I didn't cry at all. I loved him so much but a close relative accused me of not caring because she and others were crying and I wasn't.
    I was twelve.
    Good thing to remember for my stories. It's possible my heroines may be a bit too weepy.

  2. I think this is a great lesson to remember when writing sad scenes. When I sat across from my husband at the edge of my father-in-law's bed, each of us holding one of Pops' hands, words of any sort escaped me. For two hours while he labored over his last breaths, I sat in silence, clutching his hand. I remember thinking about all the hospital scenes in movies where loved ones are so comfortable chatting away to their unresponsive relatives, and I even remember feeling bad that I couldn't speak any words of comfort to either my husband or to my father-in-law, but that's how it happened for me. Me, the writer, the wordy girl.

    I think it's also another lesson that we can't judge people's words or lack thereof. You never know what's going on inside their hearts that makes them say the things they say (as in your case), or makes them clam up and appear indifferent (as in my case).

    Thought-provoking post, Wendy.


  3. When anyone is throwing up I start to laugh at them and try to turn my head so they can't see. This includes my own children. Not comparable to your story, but it sounds like in that moment, somehow.... that was what you needed.

    Thanks for sharing. :O)

  4. Thank you Wendy for taking us in your through your pain. My heart aches every time I imagine saying goodbye to one of my parents. I will be praying for you and your family in the days ahead.

    I'm such a weeper that I have a hard time to disguising my emotions. My mother says, I wear my heart on my sleeve. Good or bad- that's me.

  5. I appreciated your honesty with retelling this difficult moment in your life. We never know how we will act in grief. I like your title as that is what bothers me the most. Sad people dont always act sad. I can relate so much.

  6. You always elicit some type of emotional response from me, today was laughter and tears.

    I'm the girl that hears about a fatal disease and makes a VERY inappropriate joke - like you.

    I once had to help dress a lady that had passed away and the entire time I had to bite my lip to stifle the laughter - nervous true, but laughter nonetheless.

    I'm sorry for your loss. I hope your mom is doing well.

  7. Laughter and tears for me too! Oh Wendy- you have a funny brain- even if it was sub-conscious. Admire your strength and beauty even talking about the darkest moments.

  8. I watched this in action when my MIL was battling terminal cancer. My SIL had easy tears, my husband stoicism, I went into action, wanting to DO something to keep busy. Some of my inlaws were in denial, thinking 'if I don't look at the monster, it's not there.'

    And over the last 20 months, the grieving/healing process has looked different for each of us as well.

  9. I can see you rushing--heartbroken and scared--through the hospital only to be waylaid by the little old lady. I'm glad you aren't bitter about it. You handled it the only way you could, naturally.

  10. I always think it's weird when relief shows up with grief. Makes me feel guilty. When my grandpa died, I was devastated---I loved him. I love him still. But he looked so terrible in his hospital bed. I knew he wasn't going to come back from that. Part of me was relieved when he passed. Same with my grandmother. The woman who died wasn't my grandmother---I'd lost her a couple years prior with surgery to remove a brain tumor. She wasn't the same afterward, and I hated pretending she was. Relief. Then guilt.

  11. Wendy,

    You described this so well that I wanted to push all those (well-meaning) people out of the way so you could get to your father.

    It's funny how the mind reacts. I don't even remember my last moments with my father. Maybe that's my mind's defense to help me remember him in healthier, happier times.

    I do remember the incident at work when I asked to take the day off to see him before he died. My boss said she hoped I wasn't planning on making a habit of it. I was so flabbergasted by her comment that my reply was, "I doubt my dad is going to make a habit out of dying."

    Prayers for you and your family.


  12. Wow, awesome post, Wendy. Such a hard time, but I love the portrayal of how we respond in those moments.

    I see a lot of grieving people on my sister's floor since it's a cardiac ICU. If any of them are sarcastic to me, I'll remember to just smile, nod, and pretend like I didn't get it. :)

  13. Well written. I think what you did was all you could do to get to your dad. People don't always understand why we do things, but sometimes it's all we have to grab onto.

  14. Thanks for another honest and very real post, Wendy, one filled with truth and lotsa heart.

    I'm part of "The Club," as our hospice team called those of us who've witnessed the last days and death of a loved one up close and personal. I have vivid memories of the day the Lord took my beloved mother-in-law home. Each family member reacted differently. Plentiful tears (mine). Denial. Confusion. Action (me again).

    No one can prepare themselves for the experience or predict how they'll handle it. Those of us who are blessed to "be there" for another during or soon after such a time would do well to remember that the reactions and responses will vary greatly and that all of them are OK. There is no normal in the midst of a situation that is anything but normal for those of us who don't deal with death as part of our profession. Compassion is the key. We don't have to say much of anything. In fact, those who encouraged me to do the talking helped the most.

  15. I could SO hear your voice in this post Wendy. It was like you were sitting next to me telling me the story. I can hear the accent and everything.

    Somehow, this post made me cry AND laugh out loud. You are awesome.

    And I'm writing some pretty intense scenes that involve death in my WIP, so I might have to whip out some Scarface.

    Love you, friend.

  16. Yes. I can't remember the exact time, but yes, I'm not sure if it's a defense mechanism but I know I've acted weird in certain stressful or sad situations. But it's something I never thought about as a writer.
    Thank you for sharing that.

  17. People definitely DO react differently. And not always in expected ways. However sometimes fiction has rules more stringent than reality. While we CAN have our characters do things unique or unexpected things we need to be careful about the potential for it to become unbelievable--even if it's realistic.

    Your story was so vivid. I wanted to just push you through the obstacles and get you to your dad. I'm glad you're finding your new normal.

  18. Wendy,

    thanks for your honesty. I really needed to read this today since I'm in the middle of writing the saddest scene in my story, and I'm struggling with it. So, this is a good reminder.

    I love coming here every week. And I pray that God would continue to show you his grace in your new normal.

  19. You have a way with words, friend. I love the contradiction of emotions because you're right--it's so realistic. When I was younger, I couldn't understand why people were cracking jokes at my grandmother's funeral. This was the most tragic moment in my life. As I grew older, I understood people show their grief in different ways. I loved what you said about tears hide until they know it's safe to come out.

  20. Thank you for sharing times when you or someone you knew acted shall we say unusual. I appreciate your thoughts here, as always. I'm getting ready to spend time with a friend and I wish I had time to address each of your comments. I might try to tackle that tomorrow. Please know I read them and I'm grateful you took the time.
    ~ Wendy

  21. That is a profound statement: Tears hide until they know it's safe to come out. I've experienced that with myself, my kids, and my piano students. It took a while, but now I realize that when they have a meltdown at my piano it's because they feel safe. What a gift that is to both of us.
    Sorry about your dad.

  22. Hi Wendy -

    I understand exactly what you described. At one wake, I was looking for a name in my address book for a cousin. As I came upon my beloved grandmother's name (the deceased), I crossed it out. I think I shocked her.

    Grief wears a different face for each person. When my husband died, I cried so much that the blood vessels in my eyes burst. I looked like something out of a horror movie. At the viewing, I was calm and even sociable. That time, I scared my family.


  23. Wendy, great tip for writing! I needed that for my character shaping. Oh, yes, we all hide-especially when young kids are around.

  24. Thank you for reminding me that we're human & that I'm not the only one who have lost someone special. We all have different reactions to the loss but the pain is still real.

  25. It is amazing to me the emotions that surface when grieving a loved one. One episode that I'm not proud of, my late sister and I got the giggles at a great grandmother's funeral. It was over something completely stupid, I don't even remember what, but it was all we could do to be stoic and act like adults.

    Praying for you as you continue to work through the loss of your Dad. Appreciate this point too, and how we can apply it to our writing.


  26. I saw a tv show this weekend where a character laughed hysterically at bad news... and another character said it "relieved tension" even in the midst of grief. I've definitely seen that in my own life.

  27. Wendy, I like this memory too. It hurt to read it, but it was a "happy" hurt, not a sad hurt.


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