Emotions in Writing: Grief
As writers, we want our characters to breath with life. To do that they must have emotions and be true to them. To kill off a main character in front of your protagonist and not have them react is unrealistic. But are the emotions you expect them to have all of the ones they might feel? What are the greater and lesser impacts?
Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross introduced us to the concept of grief by breaking it down to five steps: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We accepted that these steps applied to death and dying but it wasn’t until later that we realized grief is a part of our daily lives.
First, let’s go back and review. Remember these steps may present themselves in order or even return to previous steps and jump around. There are no hard and fast rules when dealing with emotions. That is part of what makes humans so unpredictable.
Denial: The shock of the event is simply too much to cognitively understand at the moment. It is easier to deny the event is happening than to deal with the wave of emotion that threatens to capsize you. The words go in your ears and, somewhere in your mind, you acknowledge they were said but the full impact hasn’t hit you yet.
Anger: It is easy to get angry at the person who shot the one you loved. But anger takes many forms. You may be angry at yourself for letting them leave that night. Or even angry at the loved one for leaving you behind and alone.
Bargaining: This is, in my opinion, the shortest of the steps. It usually involves prayer to a higher being asking for a different outcome or a deal where you hope an alternative will be accepted. There are other forms of bargaining as we will see later.
Depression: Quite often the longest and most difficult step to get past. The gut-wrenching pain turns into mind-numbing, world-crushing, feelings of abandonment and loss. Your personal psyche takes a hit and is knocked flat.
Acceptance: The goal. To come to a sense of inner peace where you begin to feel as you can move on.
This has all been pretty much about death. But how does this translate to everyday life? Every time we make a major decision in our lives: new job, marriage, having a child, moving from your home, separation, divorce, we have to leave something behind and move into unknown territory.
Separation makes me think of military families, as a Navy wife I have vast experience in this topic. You deny, often for months that the separation will occur. Then the day comes when your spouse leaves for months at sea or anywhere but where you are. You start to make bargains with yourself…well this will give me time to paint that room, take a class, etc. (Now let me put in one caveat…today’s sailor, soldier, airman, have forms of communication with back home that we, even twenty years ago, did not have. I’m not sure if it makes the separation easier or more difficult.)
Depression often sets in as the weight of the full responsibility of a family comes to bear. You miss them and the empty bed is just a reminder. Anger moves in. Anger at the military, at your spouse for being in the military, anger at yourself for being angry. As time goes on, acceptance is easier to find and then the day comes when your spouse arrives home. And the cycle starts over…only this time it is because of a different ending and beginning. We call it Transitioning in the military.
As a writer, try to explore the depths of these emotions and include them in your stories.
Name a time when emotion played a key role in one of your characters. How did it impact the rest of the story?