Let Death Touch Your Characters – Writing Grief

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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.

grief[1]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!).

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 Exploring a Character’s Grief:

  1. Common Physical Reactions to a Death:
  • Tightness in the forehead, throat, or chest
  • Dry mouth
  • Breathlessness
  • Nausea and/or a hollow feeling in the stomach
  • Weakness, fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances, dreams, and nightmares
  • Appetite disturbances
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. download (11)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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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).
  1. 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.

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  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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!

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77 thoughts on “Let Death Touch Your Characters – Writing Grief

  1. […] via Let Death Touch Your Characters – Writing Grief — Myths of the Mirror […]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bun Karyudo says:

    This is a very useful and practical post. Thank you for it. Incidentally, I didn’t cry when our elementary school teacher read Charlotte’s Web to us because I was a boy and boy’s don’t cry. I did get some dust in my eye on a couple of occasions, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. joanneeddy says:

    Diana, you are really remarkable, not only because you capture grieving so completely (better that some workshops I have attended on the subject), or even because of your compassionate and thoughtful approach., Having read some of your other posts, I am not surprised at how you have used your own personal experience to enhance your professional understanding, but your open-hearted sharing of what had to be a searing loss speaks of a truly caring soul. Clearly your blog is not just a way to market your work, but a genuine sharing of your experiences.

    I think any book of substance, even if death is not a focus, would benefit from thinking through the kind of response a character would have to death. To really know a character, I think you would have to know this about them.

    One major element of my book is the deaths of the mothers of two characters, and a Remembrance Service being held at the Tenth Anniversary of the death of one of them. Probably one of my most favorite scenes in the book is a discussion between a teen age son and his father about what that loss has meant.

    As always, thank you so much, Diana, for your wisdom and openness. I am sure that each comment you answer must bring a remembrance of pain as well as the healing of touching others in such a caring way. Jo

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a wonderful comment, Jo. Thank you so much, and I’m glad my post was meaningful and made sense to you. It’s not an easy topic to explore or integrate, in real life or in books. Having worked professionally with the dying and the greiving, I know that the experience is often profound. I think even if death isn’t a major part of a book, it has an effect on the characters and who they are. How that manifests with each character may be very different, but its there. Again, thanks so much for the comment. 🙂 ❤ Have a great weekend!

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  4. Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    This is an exceptional piece. Thank you for sharing this information, Diana.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This was a thorough and instructive piece on how to handle death in writing, Diana. I’m so sorry about your brother’s death. I remember when my dad died we were all present and it was peaceful, but I sat down and cried. My son, age four at the time, climbed into my lap and had such a sympathetic look on his little face. Afterwards he had times when he was sullen as if trying to handle the memory. He’s a sensitive person. My daughter was only two at the time and didn’t seem to understand what had happened. It didn’t seem to affect her.

    I’m sorry it took me so long to read and comment on this. I had some health problems and am catching up with my email.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Erik says:

      I really feel your compassionate spirit in your comment here, Suzanne. Sorry to hear you were not well; I hope you’re back on your feet now.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Suzanne, for the kind comments, and I’m sorry to hear you haven’t been feeling well. Hope you’re on the mend! Aren’t little kids amazing, so naturally attuned to feelings. Even when death is natural and without pain, we still miss the loved one. It’s still a loss on so many levels. And a reminder to love. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  6. First of all, may I say how sorry I am to hear of the loss of your brother. That must have been a very difficult thing to accept.
    Your post is most helpful. I have had 3 characters die in my books so far, and your comments are most helpful. I must go back and see if I have dealt with the grief of the other characters in a realistic way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad the post was helpful. Ultimately authors need to decide how much, when, and in what way to incorporate a reaction to death. As long as there is something truthful hinted at or happening, I believe readers are satisfied. Happy writing 🙂

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  7. Dawn D says:

    I don’t have time nor a need to read all the details right now, but I bookmarked this post as I know it will be helpful sometime… see, I haven’t even started writing a novel and I already assume that my characters will suffer grief.
    But don’t we all suffer grief, all the time? Whether we grieve someone who died, a relationship that is over or something that could have been… grief is an intrinsic part of life.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge about this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re so right, Dawn that life is full of losses and many of them incredibly painful. The grief responses can be similar if not the same. For me, personally, death falls into a different category because of the absolute finality. All choices, wishes, chances are gone forever. Thank you, as always, for visiting and commenting ❤

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      • Dawn D says:

        I think of the women who have to come to term with the fact they will never bear children, of the women who like me get pregnant but suffer the loss of a pregnancy early on. It’s not quite a death, since there was no heartbeat and you didn’t have time to get to know that baby. But it is the loss of the possibility of holding that baby against your chest, of loving him/her…
        I think of the people who lose a limb and won’t ever be able to walk or dance any more…
        Those are powerful losses too. All wishes, choices and chances gone forever too.
        I had to grieve the chance of being married to one man and growing old with him. Funnily enough, that’s a tough one too, even though he wasn’t a good man to me.
        But I do understand what you mean about death. I have had to grieve a few people in my life already. Though they weren’t so close to me, or maybe I’m just wired differently 🙂
        Thank you for your informative and valuable post 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Erik says:

          Dawn, I couldn’t help but to feel sorrow – not pity, but just sadness – at the losses you have encountered. “Death” doesn’t always involve the passing of life. You’re right – it’s an irretrievable loss of any kind, where a certain door closes forever. I don’t know what else to add, but I did not want to read your heart laid out there and pass by without acknowledging the time and courage you invested to say it.

          Liked by 3 people

          • Dawn D says:

            Oh wow! Thank you Erik!
            I have grieved those losses now. I was lucky to have children before, and even some after the losses described here. As I keep telling them: if those babies had been born, I would never have met my actual children. So I mourn the loss of these souls, but I rejoice in the ones I did meet. 🙂
            Death is a strange process sometimes, and losing someone doesn’t mean that your life ends, just that it becomes different. This is what these losses have taught me, and for that lesson, I’m grateful. 🙂

            Liked by 2 people

        • Oh Dawn, I’m so sorry for your loss and all those that you describe. You are right, they are deeply felt and life-altering. They weren’t the subject of this post, but you’ve added another layer to the discussion that writers would be wise to consider in their work. Thanks so much for your comments.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Dawn D says:

            Thanks Diana! As I just told Erik… I’ve mourned and now accept the life I was dealt. I wouldn’t be the same person if things had been different, probably less sympathetic 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

      • Dawn D says:

        I actually wanted to mention that men probably have to come to term with the fact they will never have children… and then my computer seized up before it posted 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on Ace Sales & Authors News and commented:
    Great writing thanks for visit

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ali Isaac says:

    This is a brilliant post, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Erik says:

    First and foremost, it seems that many of the readers here, in addition to you, Diana (myself included) have experienced death, loss and grief. For those for whom that pain is still very present, I’m truly sorry. Death is just … weird. It’s natural – and yet seems wholly unnaturaly at the same time; there’s nothing to which we can compare it.

    Thank you for sharing out of your experience, Diana. I have found lately that my favorite bloggers (present company included) are getting very personal and “ugly pretty” about the way real life is, was or can get for them. And it’s refreshing. Too often, I think we avoid topics, because it seems they’ll be awkward to bring up, either for ourselves or others. But we all know death is there. Most of us have been touched personally by it. It’s like when a friend going through chemo comes walking toward your group and someone whispers, “Here comes Sue. Don’t mention the cancer, just be cheerful.” Sue knows she has cancer. She deals with it every day. So, while we don’t need to dwell on death and sadness, it’s OK and appropriate to mention they are there and real – and then to move on to other topics.

    We can’t expect our characters to have authentic reactions to death and loss if we don’t allow ourselves to do the same.

    Thanks again for a wonderful and poignant gift, Diana. Writing and blogging regularly takes time and mental energy; and today, you’ve proven it is also an emotional undertaking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Erik, for the thoughtful comments and condolences. I think it’s a great topic because it is so awkward. 😉 Most writers understand the need to suspend their own realities and enter the lives of others – the ultimate empathy in a way. Death is kind of weird because it’s so…open ended. Left behind, we make the best sense of it we can, in entirely personal ways. I hoped this post would show a variety of common responses, so even if someone has experienced a profound loss, they will have other options to pick from for their characters’ personalities. In addition to “feeling” our stories, we also have to “craft” them. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  11. babbitman says:

    Great article, covering an area that I have had little personal experience of (so far). One of my planned stories involves inserting modern, Western characters into an environment where death is more common. I hadn’t really considered it before, but your article has made me realise that my characters will react to death very differently when compared to the world around them. Hmmm, need to think about this some more!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. We gain wisdom through the tragedies we face in life. Thank you for sharing this, it’s really helpful for all of us writers. My deepest sympathies for the loss of your brother.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Michelle. It’s a tough way to gain wisdom, but there it is. I think sometimes writers believe grief will slow down a story, but if used well, it can add reality, tension, and complexity. The challenge is finding the perfect balance. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Sue Vincent says:

    Great article, Diana, and yet your own grief lies at the heart of it. ‘I am sorry’ never seems enough in any circumstances, and when such pain has been caused deliberately by another human being, somehow it seems even harder to understand, and leaves a whole other set of unanswerable questions.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. balroop2013 says:

    Hi D…Your words seem sharper than arrows, awakening the buried memories in the hope of forgetting them…grief is such a difficult topic to handle especially when this emotion has touched and pierced your heart. I could relate to your words, they tugged at my nerves. My characters know how to handle their grief, they meet others after having learnt from me!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Balroop, for your lovely words. A great book is one that sucks me into the reality of the story. Sometimes that includes death and grief. As writers, we occasionally need to journey into uncomfortable places. That’s why this work can be so consuming and intense. I do love that. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  15. My sincerest sympathies on the loss of your brother. It’s so hard to know what to say.
    Your writing tips are excellent. Thank you for using your heart break to help us become better writers.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Dan Antion says:

    This is very good advice but I am so sorry to learn that some of it came at such a high personal cost. I am impressed that you analyze your experience and share it in such a meaningful way. I hope that at some point your brother’s murder is solved. I wish I had something better to say.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. This is an excellent, excellent post! It is helpful to hear this from both your professional and personal experience. Thank you for what you have invested in bringing this to us.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re welcome. I really wanted to distill it down to what might be useful to writers. The conflicts that can arise through misunderstanding grief styles can add tension in stories. Unfortunately it also occurs in the real world. Thanks for commenting as always 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  18. This is an amazingly helpful post! At the same time, I was shocked t read about your brother. My mother’s older sister was murdered as a child – before my mother was even born. It’s been almost 80 years since, and the trauma is still felt in the family.

    Tragedies like this take much longer to heal, and have a more profound effect than people might expect. Like ripples on a pond, ours can be felt almost a century later (apologies for the cliche, but it’s pretty accurate!) So, I fully appreciate your point about characters being unfazed by death of a loved one.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I was trained and working in the field and was still down for the count. At least I knew that what I was experiencing was normal. I have to say, I’ll put down a book if the main characters have zero reaction to loss. The reality of the story has…died.

      So sorry to hear about your mother’s sister. I can’t imagine anything more devastating than the loss of one’s child to murder. Makes me want to cry.

      Liked by 3 people

  19. Excellent, informative post. Thank you for providing valuable insight into one of the most difficult aspects of life.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Mira Prabhu says:

    Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    “There was a roaring in my ears and I lost track of what they were saying. I believe it was the physical manifestation of unbearable grief.” Barbara Kingsolver. D. Wallace Peach writes a great and moving post about letting death touch your characters.

    All my three novels (2 and 3 are works-in-progress) deal in part with the shocking finality of death and what it does to our psyches…no matter who we are and what we believe, death stuns us – I’m talking about “normal” folks here, not the sociopath or psychopath. We can allow it to make us bitter or better. I choose better…..now please do read on…

    Liked by 3 people

  21. Heartafire says:

    This is fine article, it is a wonderful guide when dealing with death in one’s writing as well as being profoundly helpful to those who have or are suffering grief. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, may you find peace in dealing with the heartbreaking loss of your brother.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Jools says:

    An excellent post, clearly founded in your own personal and professional experiences – but very helpful to all authors. I am relieved on reading your post, that I pitched it right – I think – in my own novel.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Carrie Rubin says:

    This is an immensely helpful post. I, too, get frustrated when reading about characters who face experiences that would most likely put them on a path of grieving, and yet they seem to come out unscathed. Now I’ll be more aware of it in my own writing too. I’ll bookmark this post for future reference.

    So sorry to hear about your brother. How horrifying and traumatic that must have been (and likely still is) for you and your family.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Carrie. Writers don’t need to go on and on about their main character’s reaction to death, a hint will do it. Thanks for the condolences. Of course, the loss never vanishes, but it does get easier to live with over time. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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