Bringing Grief Out of the Shadows, a guest post by Megan Paasch
Content Warning: Death, traumatic grief, brief mention of suicide
I didn’t originally intend to write a book about grief. But then, my father died.
In Dream to Me, sixteen-year-old Eva Sylvan is navigating a new life in a new town while grieving her father and the traumatic circumstances of his death. Eva’s grief, as well as the grief of others, permeates nearly every aspect of this book, (though I swear it’s not a bummer! There are lots of light moments, too!) But it wasn’t always like that. While I had made the death of Eva’s dad part of the reason she and her sister decide to move across the country, and while she was most definitely grieving, it wasn’t really about grief. But then, not long after finishing the first draft, my father passed away from suicide.
Understandably, my first round of revisions were put on hold for a while after that. Not only did I not feel much like writing, I especially didn’t feel like writing about that. My whole world had been turned upside-down overnight. The last thing I wanted to do was put myself into my character’s shoes when I was, in essence, already there.
But then, after a long while, I was finally able to summon the courage to take another look, and I was surprised to find that Eva’s grief no longer felt authentic to me; it was more like an aside—a convenient backstory to move the plot along. I knew I needed to change nearly everything about it. I wanted her grief to be visceral, tangible. I wanted it to inform her actions, her decisions, her friendships, and her relationship with her sister. I wanted it to always be there waiting, pressed into the corners of her mind, even during the brief periods when she’s able to forget herself and enjoy the moment. And then I wanted it to jump back out of the shadows and take her by surprise. Because, as I now unfortunately knew, traumatic grief is messy. It is confusing. And it is often not what you would expect. I think it’s important for teens to understand that, especially if they or a loved one is going through something similar. I want teens who are experiencing grief to feel seen and to know they’re not alone.
One of the worst aspects of traumatic grief is how similar it can be to (and can even be accompanied by) post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “In childhood traumatic grief, the interaction between trauma and grief symptoms is such that any thoughts or reminders, even happy ones, about the person who died can lead to frightening thoughts, images, or memories of how the person died.” (Traumatic Grief: Effects, 2018). In my own experience, even as an adult, I was shocked to discover that you don’t have to have witnessed the death for your mind to form disturbing, realistic images of what it must have looked like. This was true for me, and it is certainly true for Eva. One of her coping mechanisms for this is to remind herself of something her therapist told her: “Sometimes, brains are jerks.” It made her chuckle at the time, so it’s become her mantra for whenever she’s having these intrusive thoughts. It helps remind her that the images aren’t real, they’re not unusual, and it doesn’t mean she’s morbid or anything like that. I’ve learned to do the same, and now, fortunately, I’m usually able to brush these images away before they can destroy my entire day. Yes, I still get them sometimes. But they’re quick, and less vivid, and I can move on. However, getting to this point wasn’t easy, and I don’t want to discount those who have yet to find something that helps them. No two journeys are identical.
Another thing that surprised me about grief is how much your emotions can fluctuate from one moment to the next. Most of us have heard of the Five Stages of Grief, but in reality, it doesn’t usually play out in such tidy, predictable steps. In fact, most grief specialists today would argue that grief doesn’t progress in stages at all, and that it can actually be harmful to categorize its complexities into rigid steps, causing people to fear that, when they don’t follow these stages, they’re not grieving correctly (Shermer, 2008). You can feel anger at one moment, then sadness and guilt the next, then back to anger, and so on. Grief isn’t linear, and not everyone will experience every single “stage.” For me, sometimes I would seek out solitude, then the next day I’d crave company and connection and “normalcy,” whatever that was anymore. Eva experiences all of these fluctuations and then some, but like most people, she doesn’t experience them linearly. She also has some thoughts and behaviors that are unique to her. Other characters in the book are also grieving, and every one of them goes through it a little differently. Grief isn’t one-size-fits-all, and I want to make sure teens understand that it’s okay to feel whatever it is they feel, whenever they feel it, even if those around them are feeling differently. We all have our own ways of handling it, and that is also okay (as long as it doesn’t take the form of unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse or other harmful or risky behaviors.)*
Fortunately, Eva finds a good group of friends in her new town—or more accurately, those friends find her—and they know how to give her the support as well as the space she needs. They’ve all had their own brush with grief, so they understand some of what she’s going through. They’re there to listen when she’s willing to talk, but they don’t push her to open up when she doesn’t want to. Most importantly, unlike the rest of her new town, they don’t make her feel like a pariah. And by the end of the book, Eva’s doing much better. Her grief hasn’t disappeared, but it also no longer defines her. Of all the messages in Dream to Me, I hope this one sticks the most. Grief doesn’t ever go away—not fully. But the hardest parts of it eventually do. Things will get better. I promise.
This article by Madelynn Vickers titled Teen Grief 101: Helping Teens Deal With Loss is a great place to start if you’d like to learn more about teenage grief and ways in which you can help.
*If you or someone you know is in crisis and/or considering suicide or self-harm, there is help available. Call or text 988, or chat at 988lifeline.org. You are loved.
Traumatic Grief: Effects. (2018, March 19). The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/traumatic-grief/effects
Shermer, M. (2008, November 1). Five Fallacies of Grief: Debunking Psychological Stages. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/five-fallacies-of-grief
Meet the Author
When not writing, you’ll find Megan Paasch knitting, sketching, or dreaming about her next adventure. But despite her tendency toward wanderlust, the Pacific Northwest will always be the place she calls home. She currently lives in a small town in Washington’s beautiful Snoqualmie Valley with her husband, two sons, and two very silly cats. Dream to Me is her debut novel.
About Dream to Me
From debut author Megan Paasch comes Dream to Me, a YA contemporary fantasy about generational magic, grief, and what it takes to forgive ourselves.
Eva Sylvan didn’t ask for any of this. Not the cross-country move with her sister to a town in the middle of nowhere, not the family estate, inherited from a late great-aunt, that’s falling apart at the hinges, and definitely not the sudden death of her beloved father. So when the locals react with hostility to the very mention of her last name, Eva’s pretty sure things can’t get any worse.
Until she has a dream about a gas station employee and the next day, he’s in a coma.
And then it happens again.
Something sinister is lurking in the corners of Eva’s dreams, something that’s having devastating effects on the waking world. People are dropping left and right, and Eva finds herself squarely in the town’s crosshairs. In order to defeat the shadows of her unconscious, Eva must not only unearth the magic tied to her family history, but she must confront the guilt that has been haunting her since her father’s death. Only she can save the town from the dark power in her dreams – if the threat is truly even her dreams at all.
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends, Macmillan
Publication Date: 01/31/2023
Age Range: 13-18
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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