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Friday, April 15, 2016

Writing About Grief

A great story has conflict, and often that conflict takes the form of death or some other form of abandonment. This often leads to a character experiencing grief.
1872 The Resurrection and the Life by Frank Holl
It is important to remember that people, and therefore our characters, experience grief differently. For writers, it is always a challenge to portray emotional events in a believable manner and appropriate for the personalities of our characters.  

Here is a quick review of the stages of grief. Not all people follow these steps in this order. There is no timeline for grief, or for any stage in the grieving process. Keeping these basic principles in mind as we write about those experiencing grief may enhance the believability of our characters and create a greater emotional impact.

Denial:  Some might call it shock. The person has trouble accepting that a death or loss has taken place. They withdraw emotionally and sometimes, if they can, physically. Those who internalize things (introvert) can appear as non-responsive and moving in a daze and will not appear to grieve openly. An extrovert may wear their emotions on their sleeve.
Korean War: One soldier comforts another after the loss of a close friend.

In Victorian times, it was believed that a person who truly grieved the loss of a loved one must weep and wail visibly at the funeral. Failure to do so indicated to observers they didn’t really care. However, in true grief, that is not necessarily the case, especially if the deceased is buried soon after their death.

Here is a true story from my own family history as told to me by my grandmother. My grandfather died when my mother was only two years old. His death was sudden and unexpected, which left my young grandmother dazed. After the funeral, one of my grandmother’s sisters (she had eight of them) made the snide remark, “Well, Goldie sure must not have loved Will very much. She didn’t even cry at the funeral.” My grandmother said that somehow through the fog of all that went on, she heard that remark and remembered it, even though she didn’t remember much else of what happened that day. Those two sisters had never been close, and after that judgmental comment, my grandmother said she never could think well of that sister. Because, her inability to shed copious tears didn’t mean she didn’t love and miss her husband. Like my grandmother told me, “I was in shock.”

At the time of my grandfather's funeral, my grandmother had not moved beyond this first stage of grief.

Anger:  The next stage is anger. There is a tendency to seek to blame someone, often the one who departed. “How dare you leave me. Look at the mess you left me in?”

Sometimes the anger is directed at others—doctors, law enforcement, family members, institutions. This stage is a sign that the stage of denial and isolation is starting to diminish, and the reality with all its pain emerges.

Perhaps my grandmother’s continued bad feelings towards the unkind words of her sister were an expression of her moving into this stage of grief.

Bargaining:  Sometimes this stage takes the form of bargaining with God; sometimes making promises within ourselves. This stage often involves a lot of “What if…” thinking. Our character had no control over the person dying or leaving them. They want the loved one back. They want to try again and see if they can do better, prevent the loss. There is often a tendency for them to make promises intended to prevent the same thing from happening in the future to others they love. It is an effort to regain control. The emotions usually experienced at this stage can be summed up in one word: GUILT.

I recall as my grandmother told me this story of my grandfather’s death at least fifty years after it happened that she expressed sentiments of this stage. My grandfather died of a sudden onset of a lung disorder which was diagnosed as pneumonia. He worked in a smelter processing metal from ore mined in the nearby mountains. I realized, especially after getting an associate degree in hazardous materials technology, the cause of death was the result of an occupational disease due to his long-term exposure to hazardous materials. It was not an acute infection.  Home remedies probably would not have saved him. However, even fifty years later my grandmother was still expressing symptoms of this stage of grief: If only he had told her earlier he was not feeling well, she could have given him a mustard plaster for his chest to draw out the infection. If only… Reminded of his death, she slipped back into this bargaining stage of grief.

Depression:  At this stage, grief moved into a deeper level, one of empty feelings and a sense that life has lost all meaning and there is no sense in going forward. To the grieving character, this stage feels like it will last forever. They are in a deep sadness and tend to withdraw from life and relationships. This is not mental illness such as chemical or chronic depression. It is a stage of grief that will eventually pass, although how quickly it passes depends on the character.

Acceptance:  This isn’t necessarily a stage of great happiness, but a stage of peace. The person has accepted the loss as part of their new reality and is willing to move forward. At this stage a character is more willing to reach out to others, to listen and become involved and to be more empathetic to the needs of their family and society.

Whether you are writing historical novels involving, for example, those who die while traveling on a wagon train or during one of the wars, or you are writing about contemporary issues where people experience loss, it is important to keep in mind all the stages and grief. To make your characters believable to your reading audience, people with whom your readers can empathize, understand the basic stages of grief and tailor it to match your character’s personality.

Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols. Her novel, Family Secrets, was published by Fire Star Press.

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Tears or no? WRITING ABOUT GRIEF by @ZinaAbbott #FireStarPress


  1. A timely post Robyn. My character's father just passed. I'll keep these stages in mind. Thanks!

    1. Thank you for your response, Connie. Sometimes we want to rush the grief process with our characters, but it can be a great element in the movement of the story.

  2. I probably should clarify on the circumstances surrounding my grandfather's death, my grandmother was in her thirties when he died and my grandfather was ten years older than she was. Occupational disease does take several years to develop in most individuals, and my grandfather in his mid-forties was exposed long enough to have his lungs weakened and his life cut short.

  3. Excellent post, Zina. It may take months for some people to allow their grief to surface. Others, if their loved one had a terminal illness, they're grieved for months before the passing. Shame on people for being judgmental.

  4. The other thing is people may skip around for how they go through suffering. Some of my friends, who lost their husband years back, are still going through these feelings. I think you can repeatedly go through feeling guilty for surviving, bitter at the unfairness, denial that it happened and acceptance only to go through it again. To get to accepting the loss doesn't mean you won't go back through it. What I find interesting is in observing people who went through a great loss, which can be divorce also, some seem able to move on and others really cannot. I have often wondered what the reason was. It's not like one is right and the other wrong. It is what it is.

  5. Having lost my adult son to misdiagnosed cancer (in spite of the early warning signs), my husband after "successful" surgery for cancer, and my Mother from anaphylactic shock during a flight home from Hawaii, I've experienced the full cadre of grief. The "if only"s drive you to the edge of madness. The anger never really leaves you; but it makes you a fighter. My son was a "lab rat" for a university study (found out after the fact); my husband's oncologist was a total ass who ignored what the family requested (we didn't want him told they had taken his stomach until he had actually eaten a meal); and my Mother died because the airline's first aid kit was was the same standard issue from the 1920's. (A twenty dollar epipen would have saved her, but was considered "cost prohibitive.) As a family, we used our rage to get full disclosure from "teaching" hospitals (funded by the drug companies), patient/family advocates, and a mandate re: the first aid kits on over water flights. (That said, if you have allergies, inform the airlines prior to ANY flight.) The fight continued for me when I was a haz mat specialist, and pushed for stronger OSHA regulations for workers. So writing about grief...the different emotions people display...has become a catharsis. People need to realize not everyone experiences the same feelings; and not everyone can know the release tears can bring. Sometimes, it hurts too much to cry. And sometimes something as simple as a quiet hug can do wonders. In the meantime, the characters I write who are experiencing loss seem to take on a life of their own. They may seek revenge; they may seek redemption, and sometimes they find love and understanding where they least expect it.