Victoria Summerley: How to make drama out of bereavement

It takes a very skilled scriptwriter to convey the weight of grief,the sense of endurance, the slow drip of endless tears that follow what is an emotional amputation

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It's is now a month since I stopped listening to The Archers. The last time I tuned in was the day after Nigel Pargetter was killed off in the much-trumpeted 60th anniversary episode.

I had been a lifelong Archers fan, so my vehement reaction surprised even myself. But not only was it annoying that the one character I did not find irritating was being got rid of (another hallmark of the true Archers fan is that you rather like Nigel Pargetter, however posh and dim he might have been); even worse was the gleeful promise from the BBC that the ramifications of this death, and Nigel's widow Lizzie's attempts to come to terms with it, would haunt Ambridge for years to come. The prospect was deeply depressing.

Death – as playwrights from Shakespeare to the present day have shown – can be very dramatic. We are all capable of sharing that momentary sense of loss, or shock, and appreciating how that loss can resonate within a family or a community. The business of bereavement, however, is boring. It takes a very skilled scriptwriter indeed to convey the weight of grief, the sense of endurance, the slow drip of endless tears that follow what is, in effect, an emotional amputation. We just don't seem to have a language for it.

Whereas storylines that deal with issues such as disability, or cancer, or Alzheimer's, or other life-changing conditions are usually accompanied by helpful reference to a phoneline, and perhaps even a discussion of that issue online, those who mourn are usually left to get on with things alone. It's as if coping with the loss of a loved one – the most difficult reality to face – is too mundane to merit any kind of serious artistic investigation.

I lost my husband just over two years ago. He died of cancer. Today, after months and months of therapy, I'm just beginning to feel that I can look that loss in the face. The journey from then until now has been a long and tiring one – humiliating, even.

The loss of a partner means the loss of your life too. All the plans you had – the way you lived, the things you did at weekends, the holidays you took, sometimes even the friends you shared – evaporate overnight. Instead, you find yourself one of the invisibly wounded.

For the first six months after I lost my husband, I used to gaze into the faces of passers-by as I walked along the street, thinking that one day I might see him looking back at me out of someone else's eyes. I thought I was going mad. But it was a variation on what is apparently a very common symptom of grief, known as "seeking". That's where the humiliation comes in: however bizarre your own personal manifestation of mourning may appear, you'll find that it follows a fairly predictable pattern. Indeed, a grief counsellor will give you a long list of peculiar-seeming, yet common symptoms to reassure you that you're not going insane. Even in the midst of intense emotional trauma, it seems, it's difficult to be interesting or original. I think that's where the problem lies when it comes to dealing with bereavement in drama. There is no drama. There is just prolonged anguish.

A new film, Rabbit Hole, starring Nicole Kidman, which opened in the UK yesterday, sums up the painful truth of bereavement – that it is unbearable. And that, imperceptibly, it becomes more bearable. Rabbit Hole is based on the award-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, and it is obvious, even from the trailer, that here, finally, is an intelligent, even witty, investigation of the whole process of grieving.

At one point, during a group therapy session for bereaved parents, a woman says that God took her daughter because "he needed another angel". Kidman's character, Becca, asks: "Well, why didn't he just make one? After all, he is God."

When I first read about Rabbit Hole, I'd told myself I wouldn't go and see it because I'd find it too painful. But I found Becca's line very cathartic. One of the phrases you hear often when you're bereaved is that grief is "the price we pay for love". Why, I asked myself after hearing Kidman's line, do we have to "pay a price" for love – for that very thing that we are all supposed to feel towards each other? Why don't we get a reward instead?

I've never felt angry about losing my husband, or that life was unfair. I just miss him more than I can say. But as I listened to Lindsay-Abaire's script, I felt a flicker of rebellion for the first time about listening politely to the clichés, stained and crumpled like an old tissue, with which others try to console us. Far more comforting was another line from Rabbit Hole, which echoed my own feelings as accurately as if the playwright had been sitting in on one of my counselling sessions and taking my words down verbatim.

At one point Becca asks her mother, Nat (played by Dianne Wiest), if grief ever gets better. Nat replies: "The weight of it, I guess. At some point it becomes bearable. It turns into something that you can crawl out from under and carry around like a brick in your pocket. And you even forget it, for a while. But then you reach in for whatever reason and – there it is."

Lindsay-Abaire won a Pulitzer prize for Rabbit Hole, and perhaps it takes that standard of writer to turn tear-filled tedium into sparkling prose.



Readers share their stories

I lost my husband to cancer two and a half years ago and am struggling to cope in very similar ways to the ones you describe. I miss my husband all the time too and find the sadness and loneliness unbearable. I decided to go and see Rabbit Hole as a result of reading your article. I found it interesting and quite helpful. I was only moved to tears at the end, when they talked about how they would move forward together. The feeling really came across to me at that point of the sense of endless next steps that we plan in order to keep going in the absence of any perspective on a future that has been taken away.

Pauline Roberts

My husband died from cancer three years ago and I found the description of your experience very reassuring. You think after three years you should be over it – and of course other people probably think you are – but every day I still miss him. I probably would never have considered going to see a film about bereavement but will look out for Rabbit Hole. I think the image of the brick in the pocket is a very apt way of describing grief, how you have to get used to it, forget it at times, but you always carry it with you.

Jane Manley

Thank you so much for your piece. You captured what I have been failing to articulate for myself - particularly the paragraph about the loss of a partner meaning "the loss of your life too".

My wonderful wife died last year – consumed by Motor Neurone Disease within a year of diagnosis. Everything we shared together for over 30 years feels to be gone.

Ian Sheard

My husband died of bowel cancer 18 months ago – the day before our 46th wedding anniversary. Like you, I don't feel anger or that life is unfair. I just wish he had listened to me when I suggested that he went to see our GP – the cancer might have been caught before it spread.

A widower friend summed it up when he said: "You no longer have someone to share anything with."I was watching a comedy programme on TV one evening, burst out laughing, put out my hand towards where my husband's knee would have been and turned to share the joke...no one there. Thank you for writing the article.

Name supplied

I was moved by your article in last Saturday's paper – possibly, I suppose, because it's so rare to find anything about grief resulting from bereavement in the media.

My partner (of more than 30 years) died just over a year ago and I was annoyed when moving into "Year Two" that, even after this time, the sadness seems hardly to have abated. I like the reference you gave from the film about the brick in the pocket. I guess it does begin to lighten, but slowly.

Stephen Tutcher

v.summerley@independent.co.uk

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