Do you have any advice on how to write a grieving character? Thank you!!
Grieving isn’t pretty. It isn’t always dramatic, either – while some people certainly do go home and throw their favorite vase against the wall, some people retreat into themselves and become emotionally unresponsive (that’s what I do). Violence or anger is more likely to occur if the death is sudden – so is retreating into an emotional shell, really, because it’s often a result of shock. But both can occur outside of a sudden death – cancer isn’t always sudden, but many people still become angry when their loved one is diagnosed with or dies because of it. Basically, if the death feels unfair in any way – if it’s sudden, or if it feels like it happened too early, such as in the case of cancer or of some sort of cardiac disaster (a heart attack, a stroke, etc) – it’s more likely to provoke anger or shock, depending on your character’s temperament and attachment to the dying/dead character.
That was just a general disclaimer. Now, onto the meat of grieving!
Firstly, grieving can begin before the person is technically dead – you don’t have to wait for the person to go flatline and physically stop breathing for your other characters to feel a sense of loss. If your character suffered a medical disaster or an accident that rendered them comatose, or if your character is obviously fighting a losing battle (again, terminal cancer comes to mind), your other characters could start grieving them even though they’re still breathing and their heart is still beating. However, the likelihood is that your characters won’t be able to really start working through the five stages of grief until your character actually does physically die, because rarely does death really hit home until it has occurred.
Speaking of the five stages of grief, those are important! They’re as follows:
- Denial/Isolation: your characters can’t believe your dead character is really dead. This is a defense mechanism of sorts for your mind – a way to delay at least some of the pain, and give yourself time to process what’s happened (although that processing happens subconsciously, because on the surface you’re denying that anything’s happened at all). If the dead character fought a long battle with an illness before death, this stage may be expedited by the fact that your characters had time to process the character’s dying as it was happening. If the death was sudden in any way, this stage may be prolonged, because it will be harder to comprehend something that happened so quickly, and shock will be more likely to occur.
- Anger: the pain your characters were masking in the denial stage starts to come to the surface, and as a response to the pain, your characters get angry (just as many other vulnerable emotions, such as fear, are expressed as anger – anger is a tough emotion, as opposed to fear and grief, so most people subconsciously opt for anger because it makes them feel less vulnerable). They may feel they’ve been robbed of your dead character’s companionship. Their anger may manifest itself in many different ways: isolation, irritability, or self-destructive behavior, to name a few. Their anger may also direct itself at various places: the medical professionals who failed to save your dead character’s life, God for taking your dead character, even the dead character him/herself, if they could in any way be responsible for their own death (if they were driving intoxicated, if they never ate healthily and suffered a heart attack, etc.).
- Bargaining: before death, this stage may manifest itself as “please God, just let them live and I’ll tithe my ten percent and go to church every Sunday”, or “please, [Dying character’s name], just hold on and get better and we’ll [do that thing the dying character has always wanted to do]”. (Keep in mind that most people have an astounding impulse to be religious during a time of crisis, whether they’ve been religious in the past or not.) After death, this stage may manifest itself in the “could’ve-should’ve-would’ve” philosophy: “if only we’d taken them to the doctor sooner”, “I should’ve made him stay home”, “I knew there was something wrong with him!”, and so on. This stage is generally an attempt to regain control of the situation – your characters feel like they’re taking some kind of action by offering a proposition, or by placing blame.
- Depression: there are two types of depression associated with grief. In the first (which is almost more similar to anxiety) your characters worry more about others: what if I haven’t been there for people when they needed me, how are we going to pay for the funeral/burial services, and so on. Basically it deals more with the practical aspects of the character’s death. The second type is more introspective – your characters may retreat into themselves and analyze old memories of your dead character, and their feelings on everything that’s happened. This type is private, and your characters probably won’t share much about their thoughts if they experience it.
- Acceptance: this stage is marked by withdrawal and calm – it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from depression. It’s not a stage of joyous frolicking and exclaiming, “It’s okay! I understand everything about [Dead Character’s] death!”. Your characters may still not understand the purpose of your dead character’s death, but understanding and acceptance are not synonyms, nor are they mutually inclusive. The important thing about this stage is that your characters can make peace with the death, and can move on.
Keep in mind that while I’ve listed these stages in what is regarded as their general order, every person (and character) grieves differently – they may experience these emotions in a different order than that above. They may also go through one or several of the stages more than once, or cycle through the first four of them multiple times before reaching the fifth. Some characters may not even reach the fifth at all – depending on the circumstances of the death and the character’s attachment to your dead character, they may never fully accept your dead character’s death. The stages above are just a general framework for grieving.
Also, keep in mind that if your character’s death was tied in any way to traumatic incidents for your other characters, it may complicate the grieving process for those other characters, because the character’s death will be tied to other painful or triggering memories.
I hope this helps! If you need anything else, please feel free to ask. - @authors-haven