How to Write About Grief
Death. It comes to us as much as it comes to our characters. With it being a ubiquitous part of life that everyone will experience at some point, it’s important to write about it sympathetically and realistically.
Throughout the course of What Happens in New York, Fayth deals with the loss of her mum and older sister. Even though it’s been almost six months since their deaths, she hasn’t dealt with it because she bottles up her emotions.
This was a topic I’d never written about in-depth before, and hadn’t experienced at the time. I had to do a lot of research into death, the stages of grief, and the different ways in which people cope with loss. It helped to ask people who had been through such things and were willing to share their stories. They also gave me some pointers to make Fayth’s grieving more realistic.
According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the five stages of grief are denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. How long it takes to go through these stages—and how long each stage lasts—varies from person to person.
Whether your reader has experienced the death of a loved one or not, they should still be able to empathise with your character after their loss. The deeper you can get into how your character feels about the loss, the more of a connection it will create.
Here are just a few ways you can do that.
Small things can be big reminders
This is something a friend—who lost her fiancé—told me. Even years after you’ve lost your loved one, small things can remind you of them. This reminder could trigger a few moments of reminiscing, or cause a full-on break down.
Some things that could act as triggers:
- Someone with the same name
- Seeing their loved one’s name written down (on a piece of paper, on some graffiti as they make their way to work, on social media, etc)
- Hearing their favourite band
- Eating their favourite food
- Smelling their perfume/aftershave
- Finding their favourite TV show on when channel hopping
- Talking to someone that was related to them
- Seeing their favourite book in a shop
- Doing their favourite hobby
Different things will trigger different people. So long as it fits your character and the loved one they’ve lost, and you can make it believable, it can be as quirky or original as you like. At the end of the day, losing a loved one is different for everyone.
Some people laugh at funerals
While it’s expected that there will be a lot of tears at a funeral, this isn’t always the case.
Some people laugh in awkward situations, and there are few situations more awkward than a funeral. It’s embarrassing for the person laughing, and for the people around them, but they can’t control it. Laughing at a funeral is as uncontrollable as crying at one, it’s just not as common.
There are also those that try to make every feel better by making jokes (usually bad ones).
Not everyone cries
It’s expected that at some point after losing a loved one, you’ll cry. But not everyone is a crier.
Sometimes people don’t cry because they bottle up their emotions. This can lead to them one day exploding and all of their emotions pouring out, or can lead to them suffering from long-term stress because they’re not dealing with how they feel.
Or, it can be as simple as they just don’t cry. That doesn’t mean that they’re not upset, or that they’re a horrible person. There isn’t always a deep, underlying meaning for not crying. People just grieve differently, and that doesn’t always involve crying.
Then there’s the group of people that will cry, but only in private. These people are likely to bottle up their emotions in public, but find a healthy(ish) way to deal with them in private.
People who do cry should be allowed to
There’s nothing worse than someone saying ‘Don’t cry’.
Have you ever had a good cry then felt better at the end of it, when you were all cried out?
A good cry can make your character feel a lot better and help them get out any pent-up emotions.
However, we very much have a culture where crying is a negative thing and the default reaction is to tell someone not to cry. But you know what? That’s ridiculous.
Crying is a human reaction to pain. We should be allowed to cry when we’re in pain.
It can be a big motivator
The death of a loved one is the ultimate motivator. It’s used a lot in pop culture for a reason.
Take Star Wars, for example. Anakin is already in the clutches of the dark side when Padmé dies in childbirth. When there’s nothing The Force can do to bring her back, he loses faith in it and turns to the dark side permanently.
Another (slightly more positive) example is Supernatural. At the end of the pilot, his girlfriend Jessica is killed by the yellow-eyed demon. Losing someone he loves motivates him to join his brother Dean and start hunting demons again, despite his reservations. You could say his primary motivation was revenge on yellow eyes, and Dean was the only person that could help him. Either way, it spurred him on.
Some people don’t deal with it at all
Some people bounce back (or appear to bounce back) quickly, while others take years.
There are also those that don’t deal with the loss and shut down instead.
Sometimes it’s for a short period of time, other times it can be permanent. It depends on the scale of the loss. It’s not uncommon for elderly people who lose their partner to shut down and follow their loved on a few months or years later. While you can’t die of a broken heart, you can lose your desire to live and stop looking after yourself when you just don’t see the point anymore.
On the other hand, if someone bounces back quickly, it can lead to criticism from those around them. Why aren’t they still grieving? What’s wrong with them? Are they really all right?
There’s no time limit on grief
There’s no time limit on grief, but it’s almost like some people expect there to be.
After a few months, maybe a year, it’s almost expected that the person grieving will return to normal and be back to functioning normally again.
But the thing is, they’ll never be that person again. They’ve lost someone they cared about deeply. Someone that helped to shape who they are and the path that their life took. Without that person it’s easy to become lost, confused, or angry. These emotions can last a long time, or they can last a short period of time. There’s nothing wrong with either.
There is no right or wrong way to write about death. Everyone handles losing a loved one differently.
What’s most important to remember is to be sympathetic towards your character’s loss and remember that it will always be a part of them.
Over to You
What tips/advice do you have on writing about death? Share them in the comments below!
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