Show Don’t Tell: Grief
There are moments that the words don’t reach, there is suffering too terrible to name… This tear-jerking song from Hamilton is one of many examples of what it’s like for a character to experience ‘grief’. There are many examples of grief throughout literature in virtually every genre. In fantasy, we see examples in book five of Harry Potter where Harry screams and destroys Dumbledore’s office. In Game of Thrones we see… frankly, countless examples and the waves that deaths make not only in individual characters but in the world as a whole. We even get examples in contemporary literature such as Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which involves grief in a more symbolic sense. This word is so big and so hard to define, which can make it feel even more difficult to write about. Here we’ll take you through the process of grief and how to show it through various types of characters.
1) What is grief?
This may seem like a redundant question, but the truth is that grief can come in many different forms. When one initially thinks of the word, one will typically think of the death of a loved one, but grief can mean many different things. Grief can come with the loss of a long relationship, having that person who was so significant in your life disappear without a trace. Grief can appear with the loss of a personal dream or goal, let’s say in the form of not getting a job or scholarship of which you’d always dreamed. It could even involve the loss not of a person in your life, but a loss of who you thought that person was. Perhaps they’ve changed significantly and you have to grieve the person they were. Grief is not as straightforward as we initially think it is and exploring a form of grief in your writing can lead to a significant emotional journey for your protagonist.
You’re likely familiar with the five stages of grief and it’s important that, when writing grief, you find ways to include them in your writing. Whether it’s you’re protagonist who is experiencing this pain or a secondary character, one must find ways to include these emotions through actions/dialogue rather than simply telling the reader. So, for example, denial can be expressed through one character observing that another hasn’t been crying or being expressive about their feelings in this emotional time. As another example, let’s say a character has gone missing and is presumed dead. You could have one character cleaning their room or buying them their favorite candy for ‘when they get home’. Denial can even be shown in the mere refusal to discuss the particular topic that involves the grief. Perhaps the character who is ‘in denial’ leaves the room every time the subject of their grief is mentioned. Through each of these examples, you’re allowing your reader to see that this person is in denial about their grief rather than simply saying ‘Tom is in the denial stage’, which clearly isn’t as strong or emotionally charged.
The second stage your protagonist or a secondary character will experience with grief is likely some form of anger. Again, this could come in many forms depending on this character’s personality. If this character is very emotionally repressed, perhaps they start to snap over very little things like the groceries dropping or not being able to find the remote. If they’re slightly more emotionally aware, perhaps they pick a fight with a close friend or begin to exhibit meaner forms of speech than they normally would. Anger can even come in the form of being completely shut off, someone who just comes home, goes to their room, and slams the door- not emerging for the rest of the night. Whether your character becomes more withdrawn and harsher or whether they become more visibly angry, showing this stage allows the reader to see how the loss is both affecting and changing the protagonist.
This is an interesting stage because it allows you the opportunity to reveal things about how the protagonist views the world, either in general or how their views have changed in the face of this desperation. For example, a character who was previously not religious or superstitious could begin praying or going to see a medium in the face of extreme grief. The opposite could be true as well, someone who was previously very religious refusing to go to church and finding more practical ways to bargain could show their level of desperation. Perhaps the previously non-religious character gets cleaned up and begins living in an entirely different way in order to bargain with God to bring home his son. Or perhaps their feelings are more isolated and then begin to believe that if they change a certain behavior of theirs then the universe will bring back what they lost. Think about who this character is and play around with how they would bargain in order to not only show who they are but also how the grief is affecting them drastically.
Again, this one isn’t as obvious as you’d initially think it is. When one thinks of depression, one typically pictures someone laying in a messy room, having not showered for days, watching Netflix with an empty pint of ice cream on the nightstand. But depression can take many different forms. Perhaps the person goes straight from trying to bargain to sobbing at the sudden realization that they’ve truly experienced loss. Maybe their depression takes the form of them becoming more withdrawn and quiet, not going out as often anymore. It could even come in the entirely opposite form, maybe they start going out every night and drinking excessively to the point of being banned from bars. They could even have some bipolar symptoms, where it appears that their emotions are all over the place from one moment to the next. Again, think about your character and how you think they’d experience depression, especially given the specific form of grief they’re going through.
Finally, after all of this, the character comes to a stage of acceptance. We think of this stage as peaceful, but it may not be for your character. If your character goes through this process healthily, they’ll likely come out the other side with a sense of peace about what has happened. They’ll either take comfort in the memories they have regarding this person/idea or they’ll still feel connected to them if they’re more on the spiritual side. Showing this feeling to your readers can involve one character observing that another seems to be more positive through their mannerisms, the way they’re walking, smiling, talking, etc. It could also be observed through them having (for the first time) a healthy dialogue about the subject of grief.
If, however, your character either doesn’t experience these emotions in a healthy way or they’re just not emotionally healthy in general, this acceptance stage won’t feel as peaceful. Some get to the acceptance stage and it basically means accepting that life is hard. People can come out of grief more pessimistic about the world and more guarded because they’re now afraid to become so attached to people or their own hopes and dreams. Showing these types of characters can be done through others observing how much the experience has changed them for the worse, through the character’s removal from those around them, through them experiencing unhealthy habits like excessive eating, drinking, anger, etc. Rather than talking, they’ll now grunt or give one word responses to people who try to engage with them. This may not feel as satisfying, but this is where some characters end up in the grieving process. It’s better to be realistic about what your character would exhibit in the experience than give them a happy ending that isn’t earned.