On Writing Grief (Part 7): Guide and Tips for Writing Grief
Updated: Feb 9, 2021
Welcome back to On Writing Grief. Today is the last post for this series!
As I stated in Part 1, I believe there is more to grief than just sadness, depression, or simple bulletin points. Grief, in a way, is alive. It is breathing, growing, changing, and it is influenced by our surroundings and experiences. No one will ever experience grief the same. Some cry over their loss; others (like myself) cry over their cold-hearts as they wonder why it seems hard to grieve; some don’t cry at all. But what does draw us all together is the pain.
I have laid out my story. It is only one of the many traumatizing things I’ve experienced. It wasn’t my first dance with death. But of all the chapters of my life, it was the one in which I really, truly felt the weight of grief.
I’ve noticed that the easiest way to learn is by watching and observing. I could tell you that you should cut lines at a 45 degree angle, but if you don’t know what degrees are, or what they look like, you’d have a much harder time than if I just cut the lines once first to show you.
There is nothing like learning from other people’s experiences.
My story was told not to be entertaining, but to be helpful; whether it’s for healing in your own life, or for inspiration in your own writing or other creative work, it is yours. I give it to you. Don’t just read it and walk away only to forget it later. Let it fill you with the weight of understanding and knowledge. All of this story was taken from the words of someone who has been there in the dark abyss of grief and loss.
Take my words and use them. Quote them if you want. Take all the themes of my story and use them for yourself. It is only one way to portray grief, but it is a truthful way.
To help you find those themes and to give you the most straightforward advice I can, I have complied this list of tips on writing grief. You can use one or all of the points or themes below. But also remember to find other stories and themes. As I’ve said, everyone is different. Most of all, don’t be afraid to dive deep. Grief isn’t sweet, kind, or charming. It’s ugly, cruel, and disturbing, but it is real, and it pleads to be respected and understood, not forgotten.
1) Denial is real
While it sometimes seems a little unrealistic for people (or characters) to freeze up, refuse to look at the situation, or balk at small decisions, being in denial is real, and it’s a horrible place to be. Denial, I feel, comes when, deep down, there is absolutely no way to avoid the inevitable. It comes when there is absolutely no hope; there isn’t much room for denial if there is hope. Usually if someone is given any kind of hope, they will cling to it. But if there is none, then if feels like a blackhole is waiting to swallow you up, and since you know there is no stopping it, it almost feels better to just ignore it and be swallowed in blissful oblivion. The only way to make someone feel worse if they are choosing denial, is to give them decisions that only they can make, no matter how small, especially if it pertains to the blackhole. Anything that draws them back into reality and forces them to face the situation instigates almost instant panic and anxiety. This can result in someone who is thrashing and screaming that they don’t believe something has happened, or someone who has simply shut down.
2) Shutting down is real
In horrifying or threatening situations, someone’s entire brain can completely shut down. It feels like you’re existing in a shell. You can see everything that is going on around you, sometimes you can hear it, but there is no one home. All that greets you is utter blankness. You can’t think, you can’t process anything. It’s hard to talk, understand anything anyone is saying to you, or even sometimes move. It’s terrifying and it almost seems like the more you panic, the harder it is to concentrate, spiraling you further into what feels like hell. The worst that can happen to a person in these circumstances is if they are pressured to say something or act immediately; it only further pushes the person into shutdown.
In certain circumstances, such as what I went through with Tron’s illness, there comes a point of revulsion. And I don’t mean at the illness, or at whatever is causing the trauma, I mean at what is HOLDING the trauma. This is one of the extremely ugly sides of grief and one that took me a long time to come to terms with. I didn’t want to be around Tron. I didn’t want to pet him, hug him, brush him, or even look at him sometimes. He was going to die eventually and there was nothing I could do; in fact, he was already dying, and everything in my revolted against that. In a certain form of denial, I wanted nothing to do with him, as if that would take the pain away. I hated myself for it, even in the moment, but the revulsion was there nonetheless and I had urges to yell or curse at him.
4) Helpless Deaths are Hardest to Deal With
This is one of those points that could be very different for each person but through all of the death that I’ve seen in my life, the ones that I was powerless to prevent or stop were the worst to deal with. In those kind of deaths, there is no one to blame and our human minds ALWAYS want to blame something. Somehow, deaths that have come at my own carelessness or incompetency were easier. I could hate and curse myself, and I could strive to better. But when something comes up and there is absolutely nothing you can do, that is when our weakness as humans is brought out the most. There is nothing in our power we can do, and worst, there is no one to blame. Most people I think in circumstances like this will blame themselves anyway (I did) but deep down, I always knew it wasn’t my fault. And I hated that. I hated that fate had simply dealt out that pain to me for seemingly no reason. Again, this may be different for some, but it was this way for me.
5) The longest deaths are the hardest
This is kind of obvious, but it is important to remember for various reasons. Obviously, any type of trauma that is dragged out overtime is going to be hard, harder than something that happens quickly and is over and done with soon after (I understand this too may be different for some people). Having time to “prepare” for someone’s death is one of the most worthless, overrated things I’ve ever heard of. Now, if you’ve been given enough time to maybe patch up a relationship, I can see how that would work out to your advantage. But it is always so much harder to lose someone after a fight. And having to WAIT for someone to die? It’s practically the cruelest thing you could do to someone. They’re given enough time to realize that someone they love is dying, come to terms with it, watch the person slowly fade away, forget about their inevitable death, and then have it come back to crush them. There were so many days in that December that I could almost forget that someday Tron would die. There were so many times that I let denial set back in and temporarily wash away the pain, but every time reality came back, it hit a little harder.
6) It is possible to feel physically sick when grieving
I never thought you could over something mental or emotional, but physical illness is real and it is wretched to deal with. I thought I was going to throw up or pass out on several occasions.
7) After losing someone, you can forget they were ever with you
This was perhaps one of the hardest things I had to deal with after Tron’s death. In the month following, it was hard to remember him. It was as if he had never really existed, or he had been just a dream. Memories of him were hazy and hard to focus on. It was scary because I thought I was forgetting him. Even my mom said that after she lost her dad (he died of a heart attack when she was about 21 years old), it was hard to believe that she ever had a dad. The memories do come back, but slowly. Over a long period of time you remember them, and you remember just exactly what you lost. It’s one of grief’s way of making sure that you feel that pain for a long time.
8) Hope against all hope
Despite everything I had gone through, even down to holding Tron as he died, there were many, many times I hoped against everything good and evil that he would be there when I woke up, or that it was him walking down the hall, or that it was he who walked around the corner of the house. Sometimes I could almost swear I heard him barking outside. Their memory and the habit of relying on their presence doesn’t just go away like a snap. There are still times even a year later that I will accidently call him to dinner. And when I talk to my mom about it, even she said that if she ever thought she was in trouble and needed a dog for protection, the first name that always came to mind was Tron, not any of our three other big dogs—Tron. Some things and creatures we lose can be replaced. But some cannot.
9) Wanting everything and nothing
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about being a person trapped in grief is not knowing WHAT you want. You want to be alone, you want to be in a large group of people. You want space, you want to be hugged until you can’t breath. You want to eat everything, you want to starve. You want to sleep but you don’t want to go to sleep. You want to move on but you don’t want to face tomorrow. Nothing satisfies—except what you have lost.
10) There is nothing so healing as grieving with someone
I could be wrapped in my mother’s hug, or my father’s, or a friends, but I never felt it heal me. Until I cried about how much I missed Tron and suddenly, I heard my mom crying too and heard her say how much she missed him too. I thought I would be jealous over someone else missing my dog (after all only I had loved him as deeply as I did), but there was something about the tears of someone grieving with me that mended some huge rift. I needed that. I needed to hear someone suffer though this with me.
11) Not belonging and hating joy
I always felt alone but as soon as I stepped into a group of people, I was even more alone. The laughter, teasing, and smiles that should have lifted my spirits grated instead like nails on a chalk board. It made me so inexplicably angry and it made me feel so abandoned. But I knew there was no way I could ask everyone to stop living just for me, so instead I tried to either force myself to engage or I stepped away. When I would step away, I had to force myself to go back because I didn’t want to disrupt how happy they were, and I thought of myself as a dark cloud of doom.
12) Refusing to feel
This is a point that may not be true for “feelers” (a personality trait according to the Myer Briggs test) but I’m sure it is one for Introverted Logistics—refusing to feel. For those of us who run our lives by logic, we must run everything through our brain first, including emotions. If the emotion is not logical or needed, it is often cast aside. For those of us who are work oriented (or addicted), or for those of us who feel like we need to be “strong” (in that emotions make us weak), grief is another subject of a textbook we can master and check off our list, and the emotions that go with it will be carefully structured to logic, or will be buried deep within us. THIS IS THE MOST HARMFUL SIDE AFFECTS OF GRIEF. Of all the things that happened to me, and of all the things I did to myself, burying my feelings in honor of logic (like that of some worthless five stages of grief article I read) in order to force myself to experience grief properly and get over it quickly, and forcing myself to reject my emotional and mental state of being for my physical work was the worst things of all. Just those simply acts of destroying my own rights to emotions and feelings and refusing to let my heart lead scared me more than anything else. If you want your book characters to TRULY suffer (forgive me for playing devil’s advocate for a moment) THIS is the best way to do it. Don’t let them feel the pain right away. Let them bury it away so it can fester and grow and come back to ruin them later.
This last point is, I think, the most important to remember when writing grief.
13) DO NOT SKIP OVER THE GRIEF
Yup! This is super obvious but it needs to be said. I have read book after book after book (besides those that are SUPPOSED to be depressing, or some that are set in modern times like contemporary) in which the grief that comes post-death is graciously glossed over. I've noticed this happens especially in the Fantasy or Sci-Fi genres.
I don’t care if you’re not going for realism; if your character gets happy over their crush professes love for them, is angry if someone steals their favorite necklace or destroys their only way back home, then there is absolutely no reason for them to skip happily two pages after their best friend or mentor or other loved one has just bit the dust.
Too frequently I have read deaths that dedicate MAYBE a page or two to the main character’s pain, and then the main character is back to being just peachy right afterwards. There is almost no lasting trauma or residual emotion. Maybe it's brought up a little later when they remember climbing that tree with the person they lost, but that’s it. And I can’t tell you how disappointing this is.
Many authors kill characters in their books like swatting flies and they don’t even have to kill a bunch for me to use that analogy—they just do it that carelessly. Maybe it’s to fill a plot hole, or make their story more exciting or gritty, or perhaps they just didn’t like that character and want to do away with them. Maybe this is because people don’t understand the full weight of grief and loss. Either way, you CANNOT just check characters off like it’s a to-do list. If you want to kill someone, you need to make absolute sure that you’re going to be okay with the ripple affect, especially if the person who’s going to die is close to the MC. Because if you don’t, if you just slice someone off the character chart and waltz on past as if it never happened (especially if it was someone important), then your readers are going to left angry and empty.
But forgive me for sounding so harsh! This isn’t saying that you need to stop killing characters. By all means, please keep on killing. Grief is life, and so is death. In fact, I have at least one main character death in every one of my books. But just remember that when you do kill them, it is not without its consequences. If you don’t want to have grieving characters than maybe you shouldn’t kill anyone. However, think of all the possibilities you could have if you did touch on these sensitive topics! A single character’s death in my second book (the one of that beloved character I mentioned in Part 6) propels Stephania (my MC’s) motives and personality all throughout the rest of the books. She is always changed after that. But that is why I chose to kill that character. I WANTED her grief and loss to shape her. She wouldn’t be who she is without it. Not only that, but maybe a reader who has dealt with terrible loss will read your writing and relate all the more to your characters.
It's all personal choice, of course, but I think grief is a subject too many people have skirted away from. It is painful, it is horribly ugly, but it is as real and a part of life as breathing and laughing.
Here is a bulletin list of grief “symptoms” I compiled for my own writing.
—feeling physically ill.
—feeling as if everything should stop, and the feeling of being left behind when time continues to move.
—feeling left out when friends are around
—feeling as if you doesn't belong with anyone or anywhere
—can't stop crying but can't cry sometimes.
—feels as if something is creeping up on you.
—seeing glimpses of people that remind you of the one you lost and the feeling of nausea when you realizes it's not them and they’re never coming back
—those moments when the reality that you've seen them for the last time has hit you over and over and over again, and it never gets better.
—not feeling emotionally safe around anyone else to really open up because you depended so much on the one you lost.
—feeling lost, because you were so whole with them
—resenting others for missing them or mourning them when you feels no one really understands how deep your relationship was, but also just wanting someone to mourning with you.
—Can't stand being around people when they're happy but thinking it was better that they laugh without you and you not wanting to bring your depression into the mix.
This concludes my advice guide on how to write grief. I hope you find it helpful. Please share it with friends and family, other writers, or whoever you think might be interested. If you ever use this guide, let me know! I would love to see that it’s actually useful. If there’s anything you want to add to the list, or if you want to tell your own story, just leave a comment; I would be touched to read it.
I said this was the last post, but I want to do one more! It’ll be a sneak peek of my second book Heir of Two Kingdoms; the section I will include is the scene directly after the loss of the beloved character. Don’t worry! I won’t include any spoilers! If you want to see a glimpse of how I used my experience in my own writing (and therefore how you can use it in yours), then check it out!
Thank you so much to all who continued reading this blog series from the start, and to all who are just now starting. Writing it has really helped me heal with my own grief and even helped me find new ways to work it into my own writing. I hope you enjoy it and continue to read my blog. I hope to post more series like this soon!
May the suns smile upon your presence.