Grief is one of the most complex emotions to write, and it's very, very easy to get wrong. Many people write grief in a cheesy or unrealistic way, and what could be a sad and pivotal scene becomes unintentionally funny. Writers are told to display raw emotion, but they're also told to avoid making characters cry. So what is the right way to write grief?
Any search for writing grief will soon reveal what are known as the five stages of grief. Here they are, summarized:
1. Denial. The person experiencing grief goes into mental shock, and is unable to comprehend what has happened. People may become numb or unresponsive, with thoughts such as "This is a dream" or "Life is meaningless" running through their heads. This is why some people don't cry right away when hearing about a death, even if they feel extreme grief. It can last anywhere from a few minutes to several days, depending on the person.
2. Anger. The numbness wears off, and emotions begin to flow through. A second defense mechanism kicks in, directing emotion away from our sense of loss and instead channeling it through anger. Anger can be completely irrational and often doesn't have a particular direction. The person may be angry at inanimate objects or strangers, although it is common for the person to be angry at the person who has died, even if it wasn't their fault. They are usually illogical and inconsolable, and will react with rage at attempts of comfort.
3. Bargaining. In an attempt to regain a sense of control, the person continues with their illogical thought process and begins "If only" or "If" statements. For example, they may begin to blame themselves, feeling that if only they had done (blank) the person could have been saved. They may turn to religion for comfort, bargaining with God. "If you save this person, I promise to never (blank) again." Guilt is a strong part of this phase, and irrational thoughts such as believing spending more time with the person could have saved them often come into play. The person knows deep down that bargains won't work, but their mind is still trying to defend itself. This may last for many weeks.
4. Depression. The person's defenses finally begin to give up, and they are reaching an understanding that the person is truly gone forever. This stage actually can show up much later in the process than most people believe. It is also different from clinical depression, in that it comes and goes in waves. Feeling depressed is a sign of finality, and the person gives up on most fantasies and begins to realize the reality of the situation.
5. Acceptance. The person has fully realized the event and no longer attempts to return to the status quo before the person was dead. They understand that the person is gone forever and understand that they must move on. It is very commonly thought that this means they have moved on, but this is not true. It simply means they no longer engage in fantasies of getting the person back, and are prepared to accept the future. Grief and depression can still happen, and many people fall back into depression episodes years after their loved one has died.
So are these stages useful in writing? To a degree, but the problem with the five stages of grief is that they are extremely formulaic, and are often taken as a strict doctrine that ignores the variations of grief among individuals. Not everyone goes through the five stages, or in the same order. Some may bypass bargaining or denial, others may bargain and then experience anger, and some never pass into acceptance. Some people may go straight to depression and bypass everything else. The fact is, grief is too personal and too unique to each situation to have a definitive formula.
Many people won't like this answer, but the way you write grief is going to heavily depend on your character. If your character is comfortable with displaying emotions, they will probably seek comfort from others. A different character might avoid all contact, or lash out angrily. Yet another character may simply be unresponsive. It all depends on the person, so in order to write grief you're going to have to know your character inside and out. Know their deepest desires and darkest fears, and know about past experiences or traumas that may impact how they feel about a death.
Some questions to think about:
1. What are their beliefs about death? Are they a religious person? The way a religious person approaches a situation may be different from how an atheist or agnostic person might approach it. Likewise, different faiths will affect their thoughts as well. But beyond the obvious, another thing to consider might be the fact that grief shakes our faith. A tragedy will likely cause someone to question their religion, become angry at any creator they believe in, or even reject religion altogether. This may be temporary and they may return to the faith later, or it may be permanent.
Faith doesn't only relate to religion. Atheists and agnostics have notions and beliefs about the world as well. Not all atheists are nihilists, and some may believe in some kind of meaning or order to the universe, even if it doesn't come from a god. A random death or tragedy may shake them from this faith, and can throw them into fear or uncertainty about the world. Does your character believe that no matter how bad the world gets, humanity will keep progressing and things will turn out alright? Having them question this belief and possibly having them reject it in favor of a more pessimistic approach can make their grief all the more realistic. On the flip side, some people turn more heavily towards religion after a traumatic experience in an attempt to find comfort, and may believe they can feel the deceased one's presence.
2. Have they experienced a major death before? Our past experiences with grief can greatly affect our present experiences. The death of a loved one can have them flashback to a previous death. Perhaps the death of their grandpa reminds them of the death of their dog, or vice versa. Perhaps they end up feeling simultaneous grief for both, and are unable to separate their feelings about the two deaths. Any acceptance they've gone through from the first death will be thrown backward. Relating to the first question, if they've gone through doubts of faith but still returned to that faith, this doesn't mean they won't doubt again. Likewise, just because they reconciled themselves with the world once doesn't mean they'll be able to a second time. Keep prior experiences in mind when writing grief.
3. What are their views on emotion? If you have a male character, then society's expectations will likely play a role in how he reacts to his own grief. If toxic views on masculinity have entered his head, he may hide his grief and feel ashamed at crying. But if he rejects traditional masculinity, he may openly cry and seek out help from others. Women may want to appear strong as well, and attempt to hold back tears for fear of conforming to the "weak" stereotype, or they may feel perfectly comfortable with their feelings. Different cultures may also play a role. Western cultures often value being strong through grief, but Iranian culture encourages emotion and crying for weeks on end. Your character's background and family will play a role in how they grieve, whether they want it to or not.
Also keep in mind the effects of concealing emotion. If your character attempts to hide their grief, they are more likely to boil towards a breaking point. Perhaps they act normal and detached for a few weeks and then suddenly have an emotional breakdown. On the other hand, perhaps they believe emotion and crying are signs of loving the person, and so they feel guilty when they laugh at a joke or temporarily forget about the death.
There are plenty of other questions to consider, but I hope I have gotten my point across. Grief is far too personal and unique to be confined to different stages. Knowing your character and their views and culture is crucial to writing realistic grief.
Once you know how your individual character is likely to react to grief, you need to actually write it. Here is where the old cliche, "Show don't tell," is really important. Consider the differences between these two passages:
1. Lucy looked at her wife's gravestone and began to cry from grief. She missed her so much and yearned for her to come back. She felt like it was her fault she was gone. She wondered how she could go on, never seeing her smile again. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
2. Lucy collapsed at the foot of the gravestone, vision blurring and mouth filling with bile, but it wasn't anything close to what her wife had had to endure. Her wife had had to die. Her body had given out. Over. Done. Like her wife's life; her fleeting, idiotic life. Lucy's voice sunk to a strained whisper as the image of her soft, sweet smile taunted her brain. "I'm sorry."
Which Lucy do you empathize with more? There's a large difference between sympathy and empathy, and empathy is the one you want your reader to feel. In the first example, we can sympathize with Lucy and understand that she feels sad, but it's a lot less personal and more generic. But when we actually viscerally feel Lucy's feelings and understand her thoughts, we feel a gut-wrenching reaction. The shortened sentences of the narrative reflect Lucy's scattered, confused thoughts, further simulating her experience for the reader. Don't ever tell readers that a character is sad. Show it. Show it through body language, but also through the way your sentences are structured. Short sentences simulate a scattered, frenzied thought process, while long, complex sentences simulate deep reflection on the part of the character. Both can be useful for grief.
Repeated phrases or thoughts can also help. People often search for some sense of control, and the repetition of a thought (e.g. "My fault") is a common occurrence in grief. Utilizing this repetition can make your character's reaction seem much more realistic.
What you must never, ever do is show grief once and then move on. Grief can and should get in the way of the narrative, I guarantee it. You'll really want to have your character to be ready and equipped to do a task without grief stopping them. You don't want to have to deal with breakdowns and crying in the middle of the plot. But grief is never just one scene. Your character, even months or years later, will be triggered by certain phrases, songs, or objects that relate to the death, and their grief will be rekindled. Do not ignore this, no matter how inconvenient it is for you. The effects of grief should always be there for your character, even when they've "moved on." Their worldview will always be changed, even if they return to whatever faith or beliefs they held before the tragedy.
You don't have to spend the whole story on it, but as mentioned before, including small instances of grief can make it that much more realistic. Did their dead loved one love a certain song? Your character should grieve or be launched into memory when that song comes on. They should notice small things that don't even immediately relate to the death. A portrait whose smile reminds them of the loved one, perhaps, or the sound of laughter that reminds them that people are living their lives without even knowing about the absence of a beautiful person from the world.
As you've hopefully gathered, there isn't one specific way to write grief, and fitting your character's grief to the five stages is a dangerous and constrictive idea. Knowing your character is key. Grief scenes should be some of the most thoughtful scenes you write, and you should be spending a significant amount of time on them. Weave grief into your narrative, and never forget about emotions. Whenever possible, do not state your character's feelings, but show them through sentence structure, physical feelings, or thoughts. Take into account your character's beliefs about the world, and have them be shaken from their beliefs, even if they end up returning to them later.
Take into account their culture's views on emotion, and the effects things like toxic masculinity have on the behavior of characters. But the most important indicator of writing a grief scene is your own feelings. Do you feel a pull in your gut as you write, and a guilty urge to erase the tragedy to spare your character's feelings? Then you've got a winning grief scene. As noted before, your characters should feel like real people, and if you find yourself viscerally sad about their situation, it's likely your readers will as well.
Do you have any advice of your own on writing grief? Would you like to share a grief scene that you're stuck on or ask for advice? Do you think the five stages of grief are more useful than I gave them credit for? Leave any thoughts or requests in the comments!