A few years ago, I had a colleague say to me that when most people wanted to stay away after tragedy struck a mutual friend, I ran toward her instead, and that would be something our friend would never forget. At the time, not even the Atlantic Ocean could keep me from her and I found myself on a plane two days later. I couldn’t bear to think of the pain she was going through and somehow felt that my presence would be of some comfort. Over three years later, I sometimes wonder whether I did it for her or for me. After all, maybe I could be a shoulder, maybe I could be of some use, maybe it would make me feel needed. Was I being selfish? Perhaps, though my intentions were honourable. Perhaps others were right to give her space and come only when she reached out. In the face of sudden tragedy, my actions were reactions. Reacting out of love for a dear friend.
I didn’t know how to deal with such a life-changing event. Even though she fell into my arms at the time, I suddenly felt useless and intrusive. I hadn’t suddenly lost a child – she had. I had never been faced with grief – she had. I couldn’t possibly feel the depth of her pain. All I could do was be there. One week later, I had to go back to my life abroad – to take care of my family. A string of emails would have to suffice until I could see my friend again during the summer and try to be that little bit of a crutch for a few weeks until I had to go away again and again and again.
This is where writing comes into play – for me at least. How can a friend truly understand another’s pain? Our heart breaks for them, but unless we have experienced such a tragedy, we cannot come close to understanding, not for a millisecond. I’ve come to realize though, that as close friends, we hurt too. We hurt because we feel some of their pain. We don’t know the pain, but we do feel it. Our tendency is to brush off how it affects us, because we’re not the important ones here, our suffering friend is. It’s taken me these three years to understand that we do matter, our pain matters, too. It hurts to know that I can never heal my friend. I can’t bring back her son. But I can do something. I can write.
When I began writing my novel, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley, I had already developed the premise of the book. But as fate or the gods or whatever one wants to believe in would have it, her son found a place in my heart through my writing. It was through his inspiration that I was able to heal as a friend. It was through him and weaving his personality into my character, that I became stronger. I felt as though I was doing something worthwhile. It was as though my character, Christian Hunter wouldn’t exist without her son. And he wouldn’t. I needed a charismatic young man in my story. I needed him to be someone people felt good to be around. I needed him to be the kind of character that made others feel as though they were the most important person in the room. I needed him to be a good listener, inquisitive and down to earth. He needed to be someone who didn’t care how much money others made but still appreciated the finer things in life. He needed to be comfortable in his own company, sit and read a book in a crowded restaurant and thoroughly enjoy it. He needed to have strong morals and be deliciously easy-going. Only one person could fill my characters shoes and that was my friend’s son. He gave my character life and I will forever be grateful.
We are fortunate as writers to be able to use our passion to help heal us or in many cases, help ease the pain. Through writing, I was able to recognize my own pain through my friend’s experience. It helped me validate it and give it a voice. The result was a character of whom I am immensely proud, one who reminds me every day of the incredible son that my friend raised. It reminds me of the incredible parents he has and will always have in life and in death.