Justine: Death, Dying, and Deep Emotion

emotion, writing emotion, character emotion

Me and my sweet pup, Dulcie, on our last day together.

Last week, I had the great misfortune to lose my precious pup, Dulcie. She’d just made it to her 15th birthday when the tumor in her mouth became so large, she couldn’t eat or drink. She lived an amazing life and I am so grateful to have had such a wonderful little doggie, but it was her time to go, so I had her put down.

This was my first experience euthanizing a pet. My family had dogs when I was a kid, but I was never there when they died — I was away at college, or I’d already moved out of the house. I was sad, of course, when these family pets departed us, and I had always imagined that saying goodbye to a beloved pet would be a very difficult, sad thing to experience.

Nothing prepared me for the raw emotion I felt when we arrived at the vet’s office. It was overwhelming. I stood there at the exam table with Dulcie as deep, racking sobs shook my body. I rested my forehead gently on hers, scratched her ears as she loved for me to do, and waited for that moment when she was no longer with me. It was queer and strange to feel her lifeless body, limp and malleable, under my hands, and I continued to stroke her soft fur long after she’d taken her last breath.

The whole experience brought to mind the depths of emotion one can feel when reading. The books I’ve enjoyed the most are those that have drawn me in and made me feel exactly what the characters were feeling, regardless of what that was…deep sadness, extreme joy,  visceral fear. I was extremely sad to let Dulcie go, but simply saying that that hardly does justice to my emotions. And that’s one of the biggest challenges we as writers have to overcome: how to make our readers feel what our characters are experiencing. We want our readers to be teary-eyed, or laughing hysterically, or juiced up from adrenaline.

It isn’t enough just to tell the reader how a character feels. It may not be enough to simply describe physical sensations, either. There’s a sort of je ne sais quoi that we’re trying to capture…a conglomeration of spiritual, emotional, physical, mystical, and observed manifestations of a given feeling. I don’t have a recipe for this, but I think, at a minimum, it requires us to dig deep into our hearts and minds and dredge up the good and the bad that we’ve experienced in life. To go back to that point in time that represents the emotion we must capture, and relive it, playing it back in our heads like a movie. Then we must try to analyze everything as if we’re another person standing in the room and capture that on paper. It’s not easy, and definitely not always fun, but I’d argue it’s an emotional (and probably psychological) investment that we have to make so our readers feel the most from our characters. Writing a scene that evokes strong feeling should leave us, the writer, emotionally drained.

The next time you need your characters to experience profound emotion, think about a time when you’ve lived that particular feeling. Search within and see what comes forth. Bring it to the surface, feel it, be moved by it once more, and let that be your guide to conveying your characters’ emotions.

18 thoughts on “Justine: Death, Dying, and Deep Emotion

    • I believe it was fate that we met. I found an ad in the back of Dog World magazine (or something)…a woman in Smyrna, Delaware had pups for sale. Well, I lived in Smyrna, Georgia at the time. I was on the verge of a break-up with my then live-in boyfriend, and once he was gone, Dulcie and I became inseparable. We did everything together. I’d even take her in the car to run errands (weather permitting, of course). She was the best medicine for a break-up I’ve ever had. Hard to feel sad when a warm, furry body is cuddled with you on the couch.

  1. Poor you Justine – I’ve been through similar (cat not dog) and just reading your description of it made me emotional, even though it’s about seven years ago now.

    I think the only way to write successfully about strong emotions is to be absolutely inside that character (which is, I think, what you’re saying above). Recently, when I’ve been reading, I’ve started to characterise writing into two types: writers who write from the inside and those who write from the outside. By that, I mean that there are writers who write pretty good stories (in whatever genre) but at the end of the day you realise that it’s all on the surface – they are making the characters do what they want them to do to fulfill the story – they are writing from the outside.

    Then there are writers who write great stories – they are not an author moving character pieces on the story chessboard, but they are (italics won’t work) that character in that exact moment in time. They write from inside the character and that is, for me, what makes the difference between a story that is good (might have great plot and good characters) and one that is great (as before, plus real emotional wallop).

    • You’ve said it better than me, Rachel. It’s absolutely about being inside that character. I hope this is something we as writers can learn…I assume there are some out there who can just step into someone else’s shoes easily, but even thinking about my characters has me looking at them as if they’re inside a glass jar.

  2. My thoughts and prayers are with you Justine.I went through the same thing when my Aussie-Shepherd mix, Esme, died. Her replacement (to the extent there can ever be a replacement) just turned 15. The vet says Emmeline’s heart murmur is more pronounced every time we go in. I’m hoping she’ll die peacefully in her sleep so I don’t have to make that heart-wrenching decision again.

    • Thanks, Jeanne. It is a difficult decision, but once I made it, I was at peace with it. My family helped me see Dulcie not from an owner-who-loves-her eyes, but as if I were an outsider. When I saw her in that light, I realized she’s not happy. She’s hanging around for my sake, not because she had any sort of quality of life.

      For you, I hope that you enjoy your remaining time with Emmeline.

  3. My condolences, Justine. Such a tough, tough decision to have to make, but you made the right one.

    When our kitty, Mewbie, passed, I was afraid I was going to have to make that same sort of decision. But just like the phrase says, she passed quietly while sleeping on a pillow in front of the heater. None of us knew she was quite that close to death, so it was a surprise on that day. There was a cat-shaped hole in our lives for weeks . . . I’d come home and expect to see her in front of the heater or ready to crawl up on the sofa.

    BTW, you are a great writer . . . .

    • Thanks, Michaeline. It’s so strange not to have to think about her (i.e., we have to get home to let the dog out, the kids are asleep…time to put the dog out) or have her around. There are definitely more crumbs on the floor. 🙂 I am by myself most of the day and what I sense most is the profound quiet and emptiness that has taken over our home. There’s no jingle of her collar, no coughing or snorting, no “making her bed” (scratching at the blankets until she had a proper “nest”). That’s the biggest adjustment for me right now.

      Mewbie is such a sweet name! When I was rooming with a friend right after college, she had a cat we called “Meow-meow.” 🙂

  4. Very sorry for your loss, Justine. We had to put our dog down recently in the same way and it was horrible (deep racking sobs for us, too). I saw Eloisa James (aka Dr. Mary Bly) speak at RWA in DC a number of years ago and she said much the same thing. When her mother passed, she poured the emotions into scenes in a book and cried buckets. When she was having a difficult pregnancy (that I think ended in miscarriage, not quite sure on that), she did the same thing and cried buckets. I’ve read the book with the miscarriage in it and it’s very moving. You’re so right about digging for an event when you felt the same emotions you’re trying to put on the page, but perhaps also write them down when it happens so that you have two perspectives on it.

    • Thanks, Michille. I’m sorry for your loss, as well. Pets do a very good job of worming their way into our hearts (as if that’s difficult…ha).

      Writing down those emotions is a great idea. I decided recently to do what Elizabeth, you, and Jilly have done and bought a notebook to keep with me to write things down. Usually, my head is swimming with ideas, but lately it’s been quite empty. That’s normal, I think, and I hope in time it rights itself.

  5. I was lucky to get to know Dulcie the week of I was in AZ and cried when I heard the news. She was a beautiful little spirit and you were lucky to have her in your life. I know the gut-wrenching pain of losing a pet (I still miss my Yellow Lab, my baby, Baron and he’s been gone seven years), but they are so worth the pain.

    My thoughts are with you, Justine.

  6. So sorry to hear about Dulcie, Justine, but glad you had so many wonderful years with her. I was talking to my 85 year-old mother today about the only dog she ever owned, a bull terrier called Percy who must have died over fifty years ago; he brought her great joy and and he is still very much alive in my mum’s heart. I’m sure it will be the same for you and Dulcie.

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