The first book I read that dealt with death was Charlotte’s Web. I cried at the little spider’s demise and reread the book a week later, so I could cry again.
When I grew up, I became a grief counselor and hospice volunteer. I ran grief groups for children and families. The resiliency of children, their ability to find joy in the midst of deep sorrow and uncertainty, led me to a career in early childhood mental health.
I did all this before death balled up a fist and punched me in the face.
On July 3, 2003, my youngest brother, Dan, was shot in the head. Twelve years later, his murder remains officially unsolved.
As you might imagine, my experience has led me to be somewhat discerning about the presence of grief in the books I read. In fact, a psychologically “normal” character’s complete lack of any grief response to the death of a family member or friend damages the reality of a story for me.
The good news for writers is that people grieve differently, so the portrayal can take many shapes. Grief reflects one’s age, culture, previous experience with loss, values and beliefs, coping mechanisms, the safety of the external environment, nature of the death, and the complexity and depth of the lost relationship.
The hard part is that a writer still has a story to tell. Unless the plot of the book centers on a death, the author needs to move the characters along. The story can’t stop while everyone recovers a sense of efficacy.
The prerequisite to all of this, as you might guess, is the need to know your characters. How one responds to death and grief is a reflection of the whole person. They will all react individually AND they will react to each other’s reactions. Conflicts and misunderstandings are common; your survivors will align or crash against each other.
When my brother was murdered, I experienced a large number of common grief responses. Thankfully, books don’t require that breadth of detail. Writers only need to pick one or two that are in keeping with the character’s personality and relationships. That will be enough for your readers. They’re smart; they’ll fill in the rest.
Below, I offer an overview of grief’s many manifestations. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means (to do that I’d have to write a book!).
Exploring a Character’s Grief:
- Common Physical Reactions to a Death:
- Tightness in the forehead, throat, or chest
- Dry mouth
- Nausea and/or a hollow feeling in the stomach
- Weakness, fatigue
- Sleep disturbances, dreams, and nightmares
- Appetite disturbances
- Disbelief is often a first reaction upon hearing of a death, especially if the death is sudden. Disbelief manifests as an initial numbness, a surreal sense that this can’t be happening, that the world has stopped making sense.
- Internal/External Coping: Your characters’ reactions will vary widely. Some will express themselves externally, others internally. This can be a source of misunderstanding – the less emotionally expressive characters accused of coldness or indifference, the more openly expressive characters accused of wallowing in self-pity.
- Social Immersion/Withdrawal: Some characters will desire immersion within their social network to gain support or stem loneliness and fear. Other characters may avoid interactions, needing time to process and reflect in solitude. Many will fall somewhere in between, appearing fine until the brittle walls of control collapse at a word or gesture.
- The Rollercoaster: Most people will dip in and out of grief, able to handle it in small doses before backing up and regaining emotional control. Your characters will function and grieve, function and grieve.
- Reminders: Some characters may avoid reminders of the deceased, finding that places or objects trigger painful feelings. Others may have the opposite reaction—desiring to visit those places and carry keepsakes.
- Active/Passive: Death generates a sense of helplessness. Some grieving characters may resort to intense activity (cooking, training, working, painting the house, or shopping). This is a coping mechanism that counters the loss of control. Others will feel lethargic, distracted and forgetful. They’ll have trouble focusing or wander in a fog without the will to complete the simplest tasks.
- Spirituality and Religion: For some characters, death may challenge spiritual or religious beliefs and shake faith to its foundations. For others, spiritual or religious beliefs may be or become the lifeline that sees the character through.
- Conflicted Relationships: These are relationships shaped by a tangle of positive and negative experiences, wishes, and emotions. Characters are grappling for balance and control, for respect, love, or approval. Death ends all chances for a satisfactory resolution. The feelings left behind are a stew of love, anger, regret, and guilt.
- Recklessness: Though recklessness may appear as a death wish, it might actually be angry defiance, a wager that death can be beaten at its game. Characters may also put themselves at risk to make up for a failure to protect others or guilt at their own survival.
- Anxiety, insecurity, and panic. Unlike recklessness, anxiety can be paralyzing. A shattered world can leave a character with a heightened sense of mortality, a fear of surviving on one’s own, or an aversion to taking risks.
- Characters may feel relief after the death, particularly if the deceased suffered. Relief and a sense of liberation may also occur at the end of conflicted relationship, the battle finally over. Guilt frequently accompanies the sense of relief.
- Guilt: Guilt is very common and often completely illogical. All the “I should have’s” and “if only’s” roll through the character’s brain, especially in cases of suicide.
- Anger: Anger generally has four sources:
- Justified anger at perpetrators and the failures of individuals and institutions. This is fertile ground for thoughts of revenge.
- Lashing out at others in response to feelings of helplessness and loss of control.
- Anger at one’s self for an inability to prevent the death.
- Anger at the deceased for dying, for not fighting harder, not making better choices, or abandoning the survivors (like guilt, this anger isn’t always logical).
- Unexpected Death: Death out of the natural sequence of life is generally more tragic than death after a long life. Sudden death is frequently harder to deal with than a loss that’s expected. Death by a purposeful or negligent hand is often more difficult than one by accident or illness.
- Previous experience with death can prepare a character for new losses and soften the sharp edges. At the same time, if previous deaths weren’t fully processed, new losses can trigger unresolved emotions and complicate healing.
- Delaying grief: Death and grief make characters feel vulnerable. In dangerous situations, it’s common for grief responses to be suppressed or delayed. Then once safe, the emotional blockade opens. If that safe haven for grief is a long time coming, consider that feelings may bottleneck, turn in on the character, or explode.
- Children’s Grief – Don’t forget that babies, children, and teens grieve too!:
- Babies experience a sense of absence in their lives. They also respond to the stress of the adults around them.
- Little children and teens experience the SAME feelings as adults including guilt – believing that they somehow could have prevented the death.
- Children also dip in and out of grief, cry and whine one minute, then play and laugh the next.
- Children and teens tend to regress to younger behaviors.
- Children will frequently delay their own grief until they see that the adults are handling it well and it’s safe to grieve.
- In an attempt to fit in, teenagers will frequently hide their grief. Teens may not talk about their feelings with their parents, but will talk to another trusted adult.
Well, that wasn’t very short, but hopefully it’s helpful. Please feel free to ask questions or fill in anything I’ve missed. Happy Writing!