Grieving for People Who Don’t Exist

As I described in this post, I’m pretty obsessed with the series finale of “House, M.D.” However, this past Monday’s episode, called “Holding On,” was absolutely traumatic for me. The beloved character Wilson has cancer; he’s decided he wants no further treatment, which means he’ll die in six months. His best friend House can’t accept this. The episode was a battle of wills and emotions between Wilson and House regarding how Wilson wants to live his life (and ultimately die). To top it off, there was the patient story of a young man who never grieved properly over the death of his younger brother. A scene near the end where his mother shares the photos of the younger brother she’d hidden away all that time was searing. The patient, at last coming to terms with his younger brother’s death, grips his chest in both agony and acceptance. Emotionally, I was gripping my chest, too.

I’m capable of crying buckets over television episodes and movies (I made a public spectacle of myself viewing “Awakenings” and “Gallipoli”), but I usually feel something deeply before disintegrating into tears. Sometimes the deep feeling is more painful than crying. Other times the crying and deep feeling deal me a double whammy. This happened on Monday evening. (Apparently I wasn’t the only viewer affected this way, judging by the comments on this blog review of that House episode.)

So, naturally, I was still blue on Tuesday morning. That’s when real life collided with fiction. Just before lunch my mother got a call from the husband of a friend who’s been fighting lung cancer since last year. It’s an unusual friendship: They connected through my mother’s blog, first through comments, then through e-mails, and last year they started phoning each other on Tuesday nights to chat. When all this started, Mom’s friend didn’t have cancer.

The friend decided in December she would take no more chemo treatments. She remained cheerful during each phone call and only hinted indirectly that she understood what was happening to her. Earlier this spring, she told Mom, “I guess we’ll never get to meet.” So I said I’d get Mom to the Columbus, Ohio, area to meet her friend face-to-face. We did that about a month ago. Even at the time we were glad we got there when we did, although Mom’s friend was outgoing and friendly and cheerful.

Since then, each Tuesday night phone call has revealed some deterioration in the friend’s condition. Last week the call was very short. This past Tuesday morning, the friend’s husband phoned to say she was in hospice now. She hadn’t spoken to him since Friday. Mom had sent her a card for Mother’s Day, but she never saw it.

We’d known this was coming, but it was still difficult to hear. In my depressed state, it dragged me down even further. But that wasn’t the end. After we discussed her friend, Mom told me she’d received an e-mail that morning from my brother; my sister-in-law’s father has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

With so much real tragedy, it seems ridiculous to get upset over fictional characters and the fates created for them by writers. I can’t help it—I mourn for the fictional characters as well when they become real to me, when I’ve really gotten to know them and care. Even in childhood I got very invested in characters in books, even secondary characters, and if something happened to them it knocked my knees out from under me. I remember especially in sixth grade Sister Mary Bellarmine reading Tom Playfair to us each school day after lunch recess. When lightning struck Tom’s dormitory hall and two familiar boys were killed, I couldn’t get over it. I walked around stunned for the rest of the day.

Fictional characters, skillfully created, have always had an impact on readers or viewers (or listeners, in the case of radio). No, they’re not real, and their tragedies should never overshadow what’s happening to our friends and loved ones. It would be quite lopsided, and absolutely wrong, if I grieved over Wilson’s cancer but took the cancer of Mom’s friend and my sister-in-law’s father in stride.

At the same time, good writing makes us embrace characters and absorb them into our lives. How can we not react with joy when good things happen and with sorrow when tragedy strikes? Maintaining intellectual and emotional distance would somehow be wrong as well.

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