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Death and all of its friends: How to write grief with impact

Death is a common theme in stories. Your characters may have daily experience with it, or have lost someone as part of their backstory. Either way, knowing how to write grief will help you understand how to bring their grief to life.

What is grief

First of all, grief is not just about death. Your character can grieve a failed relationship, a friend moving to another country, or the childhood they never had. This blog will focus on death as a source of grief, but this blog applies to every major loss in life.

What many people overlook is that it’s possible to grieve someone before they die. Imagine that your character’s parent is diagnosed with an incurable illness. The grieving will start as soon as death is certain. But, if there is any shred of hope left that your character clings to, the grieving process is not fully started.

Impact of the loss

The emotional connection between your character and who they lost is a deciding factor in their grieving. If they never knew their dad before he dies, that’s going to be less impactful than the dad who raised his daughter and taught her how to change a tire.

A second important aspect is how your character pictured their future plans. When the loss impacts long-term goals such as building a family, your character might feel as if the earth shifts below their feet. When you lose a grandparent at the ripe old age of 107, the loss is different.

What you need to consider is how emotionally attached your character is to the lost one. There are a million things that factor into the emotional connection to the loss, but the two I described above should help you get a feel for how badly the loss affects your character. It’s impossible to quantify grief and loss, but as a general rule, the closer and more connected your character is to who they lose, the more it impacts your character.

Five stages of grief

Grief is commonly described as having five stages; denial, bartering, anger, depression, and acceptance. The stages don’t have a particular order. In fact, your character can go through all of them backwards, then forward again, shuffle, and repeat. Afterwards, your character may still not be done grieving. As an author, you have to ask yourself: how does my character deal with negative occurrences in life?

Even when your characters has accepted the loss at one point, they can still go back to anger, or even denial. Imagine a husband dying, his lover accepting the death after a year, only to learn it was in fact murder! You can bet your ass that the surviving spouse will go through all those stages again.

Denial

Denial often comes right after there is no more hope. As that feeling of definitiveness sinks in, your character’s heart and mind battle over what is real. They keep holding out hope. Here are some examples of what your character may think while they are in denial:

  • Maybe that clinical trial I found will save my mother.
  • But I thought plane crashes were, like, super rare.
  • Dad just needs to wake up.
  • No, that call from the hospital must be fake.
  • Jake wouldn’t just die like that.

On a related note, when death is all around your character, for example when they have seen too much death, this stage is often barely present. When death becomes a regular part of life, it changes how humans cope with death, and it should change the way you write grief for them.

After all, most people enjoy living and wouldn’t want to die. When your character experiences loss, they have to learn how to look at the world differently. Not only is death a part of it, but they also have to adjust to a world where their loved one is no longer there.

Children often have an easier time adjusting to these changes. That stems from the fact their perspective of the world and how it all works changes on a regular basis; that’s an essential part of growing up and learning about the world. Overall, you could write grief for a child character more intense because they don’t have the same understanding an adult has of death. (Or, when they are a bit older, they can worry about their other loved ones dying.)

Bargaining

The step that often comes after denial can show fringes of heightened emotions, but often shows more of a merchant mentality. The idea of death isn’t as foreign as in the denial stage, but your character won’t give up on the thought of having their loved one close. For example;

  • That doctor can put Grandma back on the transplant list. 
  • The police shouldn’t have let such a dangerous criminal out.
  • The King’s soldiers abused their position.

Denial and bargaining are often short stages that you won’t spend more than a day on. In most tv shows these two fly past within the first half of a conversation. How you write grief stages for your characters often says a lot about their personalities.

Anger

This is where your character blames everyone and everything around them for the death.

  • The doctors should’ve worked harder. 
  • That drunk driver’s address, what was it again? 
  • The Queen will pay for what she did to my village!

During this stage you can expect your characters to show violent outbursts and severe, unstable reactions—but only when the character’s personality allows for it. Grief is a catalyst, not a cause for abnormal behavior. A calm character such as Mr. Rogers won’t be likely to fly off the handle when a close relative dies. Most people are stable enough that one loss won’t incapacitate them. So unless their whole family gets torn apart by wolves, they won’t suddenly turn into psychopaths. Remember, how close were the loved one and your character? How much of an impact will the loss have on their lives? What kind of social safety net do they have in place?

Depression

Don’t let the name fool you: feeling depressed is not the same as a diagnosis of depression. Though prolonged grief can lead to mental health issues, we’ll discuss grief-related feelings of depression here.

The stage of depression tends to linger longest. Your character will be sad, grumpy, and any mention of their loved one’s name might cause them to show that. Other examples of emotions they can show are irritation, regret, anxiety, numbness, and even relief. It all depends on the situation.

Depression comes back even years after. Imagine a daughter not having a parent to walk her down the aisle, ten years after a disease took them. Or your character can turn melancholic seeing a dog that resembled their childhood pet. To write grief well, the main goal is to transfer believable emotions.

Acceptance

This is just a fancy way of saying, ‘this loss no longer affects me in my day-to-day life’. Depending on how you write grief, it can always come back, for example years after the death date. Sometimes it’s hard to define what is part of acceptance and what is a return to those stages. For example, your character may need to get back to work. The first few days will be hard, but after that, life goes on and it doesn’t hinder their job anymore. That’s part of acceptance. But then in the weekends, they might drink themselves into a stupor. Some people struggle with anniversaries and fall out of acceptance and back to the other stages.

Bargaining and anger aimed at your character

This blog can only scrape the tip of the iceberg about how to write grief. One important, often used deviation of these stages of grief is when your character aims their bargaining and anger at themselves. Forgiving themselves for the guilt and blame your character feels takes a long time and needs professional help. No one magical one-liner from a sage old crone will cure it. Please, for the love of all the world, that is not how you write grief when you want it to have an impact.

Though an external party might offer a new perspective on their grief, there is a long way to go from hearing it and internalizing that message and adapting your behavior accordingly. Your character might feel like they suddenly have all the answers, but as they grow further, they will discover that it takes steps to improve and apply the newfound insight. When you want to write grief convincingly, put personal development stakes on the grief. When your character is stuck in depression, write about something that forces them to deal with their grief.

Internalizing guilt and blame and pain for too long often leads to self-harm. That can include but is not limited to: excessive alcohol consumption, lack of hygienic care, automutilation, sabotaging friendships, and isolation. It is very closely related to guilt and blame, which are closely related to anger. In summary, things your character does to externalize the grief and/or to punish yourself. Your character is at least subconsciously aware of the destructive nature of this behavior as it happens. Dealing with the grief will remove the underlying cause of the self-harm, but depending on how long that takes, your character might have developed nasty habits that take longer to get rid of.

Common ways to show grief

People often don’t know how to cope with their grief. That means your character has trouble with that, too. One way they can react is by projecting.

For example, they’ll find their grandma’s last baked pie in the fridge. Touching the pie is close to sacrilege. If anyone even moves it, it’s like the memory of Grandma itself got moved. The pie becomes a tangible piece of their grief. When the worst shock of the death passes, so does the worst emotional response. In a tv show they might symbolize this by throwing out the pie, or eating it slowly.

Your character can also project their own feelings on other people or objects. For example, the anger they feel inside gets turned on the pie. Your character will blame everything on that. It’s not delicious enough. There’s not enough of it. That pie is the reason Grandma died, because she had to go out for whipped cream to garnish it with. Your character can throw it away in their anger and then regret that decision.

When those combine

Sometimes these even combine, for example in the movie John Wick. Someone kills the puppy his wife got him just before she died; the puppy symbolizes his grief and her love for him. The dog is meant to encourage him to keep on going. When someone kills that puppy, it’s as if the brat who killed his dog also killed his wife.

If you don’t want your characters to project their way through the grief, you can also choose to show the raw emotions. Crying, lamenting, trying to put together a funeral, those are all realistic, too. Your character could flip through a photo album. They can visit their loved one’s headstone and talk. Go to a therapist. Spend the night with a close friend or relative while reminiscing.

A third option some characters may use is ignore that it ever happened. They search for a new relationship too soon, or they can’t take the time to grief during their epic quest. What usually happens is that those characters break down eventually. This breakdown is an important plot point in Inside Out, where Riley’s emotions need to learn how to blend. Your character can also harden and turn distant. This is often what happens as a set-up for the distant, old detective who doesn’t get along with his new, younger partner. It’s lazy and plays into way too many behavioral patterns we as writers should be trying to break through.

How to make the loss count

Your character needs to take time to grieve, or have reasons not to grieve yet. As John Green put it, pain demands to be felt. Which does not mean turn your story into misery porn, but do respect the natural balance of things. If the grief isn’t real and lasting, the impact of your tragic death scene isn’t, either.

In summary, this is how to tackle writing grief;

  • How badly does this loss impact your character?
  • How do they usually respond to bad news?
  • How will this impact their lives from now on?

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