Character death is everywhere. A classic favorite among authors, playwrights, and script writers alike, its uses are numerous. Killing off a character can add realism, advance the plot, provide motivation for other individuals, or satisfy the audience with a well-deserved end. Although the exact circumstances of a character’s death and the immediate impact on those who witness it are heavily covered in literature, a less commonly portrayed aspect of death is the long-term effects it has on those who experience it.
Mourning in literature is often seen as an obstacle to overcome. The assumption is that people in grief need to be cured, the melancholy mustn’t drag on too long, and the most important goal is to make sure the loved one’s death was not in vain. Sadly, these common themes in fiction are inherently wrong. As respected bereavement counselor Earl Grollman once said, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease, or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical, and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”
Sooner or later in life, everyone is forced to experience a deep loss. And without the guidance of counselors or family, the only voice telling people how to grieve is our shallow, profoundly confused culture. As authors, we do a disservice to our readers if our heroes are praised for ignoring their grief, or if the main obstacle is that the character just needs to decide to “be happy” again.
Since I have experienced a tragic loss personally and am closely involved with volunteer work at a local hospice, I know firsthand how shallow a story with glossed-over grief comes across. Furthermore, I know how cathartic it can be to sympathize with a well-written character as they work through their loss, with all of its rawness and hardship.
Our pens are under the same charge to convey truth as our lips, and we should not shirk from describing the pain and devastation that bereavement causes in our fallen world. Here are five myths to avoid the next time you write the death of a character.
Myth #1: Grief only lasts for about a year.
This is one of the most prevalent grief stereotypes (though in film it’s likely to be shortened even further). The truth is, grief never completely ends. The wound will heal over time and the pain won’t seem as raw, but the scar never entirely fades. Some people find the second year of grief to be even harder than the first, as the rest of the world moves on and forgets. If your characters act like everything’s fine and dandy again after a year, they probably haven’t taken time to fully grieve their loss.
Myth #2: Showing grief and tears is a sign of weakness.
Some people take pride in keeping a stiff upper lip, not crying, donating or disposing of the deceased’s belongings after a short time, making all apparent efforts to move on, etc. These “signs of strength” are praised by outsiders and those unfamiliar with grief, but may indicate that the bereaved are failing to address their grief. This can be particularly difficult for men, whose pain is no less poignant than women’s, but are instead expected to remain strong and hide their emotions.
Writing a character who keeps his or her grief bottled up without suffering any ill effects is in most cases unrealistic. Children who don’t have healthy outlets for their emotions can be more prone to angry and violent outbursts. Adults who don’t cry may suffer more internal havoc, as tears contain toxic chemicals brought on by the stress response. Having a good cry is a healthy way to release these toxins and acts as a natural stress reliever.
Contemplate how much your character is inclined to cry and what it would take to bring them to that point, as this (like all aspects of grief) is highly individualized.
Another facet to consider is your characters’ childhood. Parents who aren’t afraid to show grief in front of their children actually help by modeling healthy behaviors to cope with loss. The manner in which your characters express grief should reflect on their upbringing and how their immediate family handled tragedy.
Myth #3: Only weak Christians struggle with grief.
If the characters in your story are strong believers, it may seem tempting to glaze over their grief, because they know in the end that everything will be all right. Although this fact is unquestionably true, it does not mean that the brutal, throbbing ache in the heart after a loss is any less real. Even Jesus, who knew he was about to bring Lazarus back from the grave, wept.
First Thessalonians 4:13 is often quoted by well-meaning but clueless comforters. “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” Paul is not condemning grief in general, but specifically grief without hope. It is still a crushing burden to go on living each day, inexorably separated from your loved one for the entirety of your life on earth. The Bible is full of characters who wept and refused to be comforted, and death is shown to be the enemy of mankind (1 Cor. 15:26). But hope for eternity might be the saving grace that keeps your characters moving—the only thing that makes their pain bearable.
The catchy phrase “those who believe need not grieve” simply isn’t true. Grief can be used as a powerful force to drive a character closer to or further from God, and should not be minimalized.
Myth #4: Everyone goes through the five stages of grief.
This list of emotions was first “discovered” in 1969 by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross when she wrote about them at length in her book On Death and Dying, which was based on her work with terminally ill patients. These are usually summarized as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Since then the list has been treated as the world standard for understanding grief, which its own author regretted (The 5 Stages of Grief and Other Lies that Don’t Help Anyone). Unfortunately, real life is more complex than a tidy five-point list, and the vast range of human experience means that grief is neither orderly nor predictable.
As you write your characters through their loss, don’t feel confined by this list. There will never be a typical response to loss, because no loss is typical. Humans have a vast array of emotions and reactions, and it’s important to express that variety. Within a single family or group, each member will express themselves differently, and often not in harmony. The already complex emotions of a person may be further complicated by the grief of those around them.
Myth #5: The goal of grief is to let go and move on.
In past eras, people were allowed more time to grieve, and they did it in public. Think of the women wailing in the streets during the funeral procession that Jesus interrupted, or aristocratic widows who painted their rooms black and dressed in mourning the rest of their lives. Infant mortality and death in general was more common, and people accepted it. Today in our western world we keep death and grief at arms’ length, and we dislike being around people who are sad or talking about it.
People who are facing loss and trauma are pressured to carry on with life and forget their grief. Expecting someone to just “move on” when the very fabric of their former life has been torn to shreds reveals ignorance and lack of compassion. C.S. Lewis summarized the problem well in his book, A Grief Observed :
“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
The depth of pain that death causes can only be fully understood after experiencing it. However, that doesn’t mean people who have never experienced loss can’t write well or movingly about it. But a combination of research and empathy is required. Reading blogs of people currently enduring grief can be a good way to see what daily life is like, with all its peaks and troughs.
Grief should not be written as a problem for the protagonist to conquer or a plot line to eventually tie into a neat bow. Rather, it should be presented as an opportunity for growth as the characters learn to live with the loss, and not merely forget it.
Writing Grief Well
As the author of your story, you are of course at liberty to ignore any of the errors I’ve pointed out. Maybe you’re writing a fantasy piece about emotionally disconnected immortals who’ve lost all capacity to grieve, or you want to write a character who poorly handles his loss, thus pushing him further down the path to destruction. But the key is how these reactions are portrayed. Don’t try to glorify stoicism or denial anymore more than you would extreme violence or ambition.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” Romans 12:15 tells us. As writers, we can take that exhortation to heart by treating grief with the significance and compassion it merits.