Writing Death and Grief

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Few topics are as complex, emotionally rich, and broad as death and our extremely varied reactions to it. Many, many, if not most fictional stories somehow touch on mortality, and the loss we feel at the death of a loved one. While you shouldn’t include a character death if it feels random and doesn’t add to the impact of the story, there’s usually room for it as a plot point or thematic element if you do it right. Admittedly, being a morbid type and almost obsessively fascinated by death, I’ve got quite a bit to say about the most human, all-encompassing of topics. From common reactions to grief to mortuary science, here’s a primer on all things related to the biggest mystery––

Any death included in the story should have a purpose and further the story in some way.

Always my first piece of advice for almost any story element. Stories that feel random and scattered are usually not good ones. Death in particular is a powerful tool in fiction, and as such shouldn’t be sloppily done or thrown in there for shock value or because the story is dragging. It’s an entirely different thing to include a death important to the plot, character development, or theme as a means of moving the story forward. Just plan it ahead of time, tie it in with the other elements and events of the story, and take your time with it.

Death as a thematic element can be a very, very powerful thing, and sometimes even move genre fiction towards the realm of literary fiction.

While you don’t want to seem overly angsty or like you’re trying too hard to be deep, if you can naturally work a deeper theme of mortality and / or loss into the story, your book may very well be richer for it. It can also take a story that would fall in the realm of more fluffy “beach read” fiction or a genre like sci-fi, into more high-brow, literary territory. Death is virtually the only thing everyone on the planet has in common. Literally everyone has feelings and beliefs on it, and will likely connect to fiction that touches upon the topic. This can be done in any number of ways. My stories tend to be “death heavy” as far as plot, so themes related to dying fit in naturally and come through in characters’ feelings and conversations on mortality. For example, a short story of mine, Lungs, is focused on death and illness and therefore is, of course, themed around mortality. Some pieces may include the topic in a less concrete way. One of my favorite recent reads, The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, is not largely structured around mortality, but various deaths in the background coupled with a focus on the life cycle, aging, and death of relationships makes it a primary underlying theme. You’ll want to weave death as a theme into your story in a way that feels natural, not heavy handed. To that end…

It can be really great to include “research” and outside anecdotes or facts with regard to mortality and dying. They can enrich the story, add dimension, and really tie in the underlying themes of the book.

Symbols and motifs representing death are great ways to incorporate mortality as a theme. Even characters can be symbols––many have suggested that in the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore represents a kindly, un-scary death (“to the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure”). All of these elements are things that can and should be included to develop a theme. However, one major source of thematic depth, especially when it comes to the theme of death / mortality / grief, is non-fiction and even academic sources. This is something often seen in memoirs and essays, somewhat less often in fiction. It’s something some writers just don’t think to include, but can be put into a story seamlessly. Looking for Alaska by John Green (IMHO, one of the best young adult novels ever, rivaling many adult classics in depth and raw feeling) is a good example of this. In the story, the narrator and protagonist has an interest in famous last words. He collects them, in a sense, and various final quotes of historical figures are peppered throughout the story. This not only adds emotional passages to the book and develops the primary theme of death––it also connects the story to the larger universe and makes the whole thing feel “bigger”. Not to mention, interesting and relevant facts and research on any given theme or topic in fiction just kinda make you sound more intelligent and make the story feel more expansive, for lack of a better word. As far as where to begin research on death and dying, be it beliefs on the afterlife or famous deaths in history, I’ve got a few recommendations. From my coffee table and bookshelf––Death and the Afterlife by Clifford A. Pickover, From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty, and Advice for Future Corpses by Sallie Tisdale are all great. For a medical and cultural perspective on death and aging, contrasting the difference in western and eastern approaches to death, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande is fabulous. I’m currently reading The Death of Death (Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought) by Neil Gillman, which is obviously limited to a Jewish perspective, but it’s a great book for anyone who’s interested in that. Also check out psychology texts and research related to death. You may want to include something related to the actual experience of loss, like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief.

Reactions to grief vary hugely, by gender, age, culture, religion, and just person to person. No two reactions to loss are alike.

I could literally write a book on this, but I’ll try to keep this reasonably short. Common reactions to the death of a loved one, across cultures and demographics, include not only the obvious sadness and loss of interest in day-to-day life, but a variety of other “symptoms” that one might not naturally connect to grief. Anger, even anger at the deceased or unfairly blaming others for the death, is quite common. Those left behind may feel abandoned, and have their identity shaken by the loss if the person was close enough.

Fear can be a part of grief, especially depending on how the individual died. Loved ones left behind, especially kids, may be hyper-aware of their own mortality and fear dying themselves, even if they know it’s irrational. Feeling so much will also likely leave those mourning very tired, physically and emotionally, and sometimes no matter how sad someone is they don’t have the wherewithal to cry any more at a certain time. Grief is, especially early on, extremely overwhelming. The individual might be forgetful and scattered, and even have trouble performing basic care for themselves. Many people who lose someone close find the most difficult time to be after the funeral, when people who have come to comfort them and pay respects leave and life has to continue on. Shock is very common as well, even if death is expected. It may feel surreal and take some time to fully sink in, sometimes causing those grieving the loss to appear oddly okay, when really they’re just temporarily numb. They may rapidly go back and forth between what looks like normalcy, sadness, anger, or any number of negative emotions. This is especially common with kids who are grieving, because they don’t really have the emotional abilities to cope with it, and young kids (usually kids younger than 7 or 8) likely will not fully understand death and all its implications. 

If a person dies after a long illness or other very drawn out death (ie. addiction), in addition to grief those left behind may feel some degree of relief, both that their loved one’s suffering is over and that there is far less stress even if the stress is replaced by other negative emotions. They then may feel guilt over feeling relief. Grief is, above all, extremely complex. 

Those grieving may become very attached to possessions of the deceased, visit places they associate with their loved one, or do other things to stay connected. On the other hand, they may avoid even talking about the person, although this type of reaction generally decreases with time as they come to terms with the loss. While loss of a loved one often continues to affect an individual throughout their life, grief does change a lot over time, and not just as far as severity. They will likely know when to expect increased / renewed feelings of grief and be able to prepare themselves, and deal with it better. They will likely be able to focus more on the good times, and often make some kind of peace with the death itself. This is a long process that can make a very good subplot or even main plot to a story. 

It can be helpful to research grief and mourning by culture. If you’re writing historical fiction or about a culture you’re not terribly familiar with, you may want to research mourning customs. Generally, older generations and men have been more conditioned to suppress grief, and reactions of numbness and anger are common. But bottom line, no two reactions to loss are the same, and there are really no rules. 

Even if an actual death is not included in your story, how your characters relate to their own mortality, and mortality in general, can say a lot about them and help with character development.

Everyone has an opinion / general feeling on death. E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E. How a character feels about mortality can provide major insight into their personality, background, and worldview. Whether they’re afraid of dying, fascinated by it, or pretend they aren’t scared but really are, any of these things can help shape the character. Do their thoughts on death relate to events in their past? Did they lose a parent young, or were they in a situation as a child that almost killed them? Religious beliefs and general feelings on the meaning of life figure into this too. Are they a staunch atheist who believes death means oblivion, or a Christian with a traditional conception of heaven and hell? Agnostic secular humanist, or new age spiritual curious about the idea of reincarnation? All of these things suggest a particular kind of character. As a liberal millennial Jew, perpetually uncertain, afraid of the pain of dying but unafraid of death, fascinated with past lives, and bent on convincing skeptics to entertain the idea of an afterlife using concrete evidence (check out the NYU Langone near death experience study!), I feel that my feelings on mortality say so, so much about who I am as a person. Fictional people are the same way, and there are so many ways to shed light on their personalities and stories using death as a topic.

If one of your characters, or someone close to one of your characters dies, in order to make that loss meaningful and impactful to the reader, you’ll need to develop that character or relationship so the reader actually cares.

Bluntly put, if your doomed character is boring readers won’t give a fuck. Before they die, you have to make them interesting and likable. If the death in question is that of a character’s loved one, in the past, be sure to develop this relationship through the character who is still living. Have them recall memories of their lost friend / partner / family member. Make them miss particular things they associate with the person––a recipe that only they made perfectly, for example. These things increase the tragic impact because they express in a vivid, emotionally resonant way one major truth of grief––we don’t only miss the person who has died, but the things we only had with them, and things only that person could give us. You might also have your character struggle to avoid constantly bringing them up, or dealing with occasions like birthdays or anniversaries of death. There are ways to develop a character in the past tense. When writing a character who dies at some point after the beginning of the story, just develop them the way you would (should) any other character. Play God. Create a real person, only pretend.

Aside from the characters themselves, there are things you can do to subtly make a death sadder.

Just gonna list some traits of a tragic fictional death; things that make readers cry. Make your character arrive just too late to exchange final words with their dying loved one. Normally stoic characters absolutely breaking down. Show the dying character trying to get help, maybe almost managing to find it. Give them a painful death. Have them die in a loved one’s arms, especially if it’s a love interest…especially especially if it’s a love interest whom they never quite got together with. Have your dying character be optimistic about life and looking forward to something or excited about accomplishing a goal, which will obviously never be accomplished. After the fact, show their child or pet reacting to their death, with not only sadness but perhaps confusion. Have the character sacrifice themself to save another, and better yet, try comforting the one they’re leaving behind as said character begs them not to go. And remember that sometimes it isn’t dramatic moments that are most impactful, but little things like an inside joke referred to one final time before a character dies in the presence of a friend.

But above all––a convincing death is generally a much more emotionally impactful one.

Number one tip on this would be to not overdo the drama. That doesn’t translate to a shortage of emotion. In my opinion, it’s the same thing they say about porn––hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Ie. The dying person choking out, “come closer!” and trying to confess their love at the final minute but ultimately kicking it before doing so, only for the bereaved to sink to the ground crying why why why WHYYYY?!?!?!?! You’ll generally want to steer clear of cliches and anything that feels stilted. Most people, in their final minutes, don’t say a whole lot unless death is sudden. If they know it’s coming, they will likely be too afraid to come up with something deep. More meaningful conversations with the ones they’re leaving behind often come in the days leading up to death, and a lot of emotion can be evoked in the final scenes prior to sudden death. If a character is with another character as they die, any words shared will likely be simple––I love you, it’s been a good one, see you later. All of these things can be moving without being too much. One good test, somewhat ironically, is avoiding what feels like Shakesperean death. Obvious he’s quite possibly the greatest writer of all time…in a different time, and because he was the one who first wrote the cliches, at which point they weren’t cliches but groundbreaking tragedy. I don’t mean that in a general way, Romeo and Juliet type situations are bad. But as far as dialogue and events of a given scene or chapter, avoid things like people being stabbed only to dramatically stagger around for a minute before falling down. In summary, avoid anything that has become too much of a trope when writing death in fiction.

If you’re writing an actual “on-screen” death, try to make sure you do your research and have a good idea of what the effects and physical presentation of your chosen manner of death are.

This is huge. If you don’t do this, anyone who knows about said manner of death (a doctor, for example, or cop, or serial killer…any number of occupations and range of experiences) will call bullshit and be removed from the story because it’s unrealistic. And it’s just lazy, because while it may not be possible to know what it’s like to experience a given death––although sometimes you can even kinda find this, due to people having very nearly died but survived––there’s a wealth of medical knowledge easily available online to give you an idea of what death is actually like from a physical standpoint. Literally, just search, “death by ––– “ or “what would it be like to die of ––”. Everything from Quora answers to lists of symptoms will come up. You can take notes, then translate it into fiction and add feeling to it.

If writing a crime story, or any genre of fiction that includes the discovery of a dead body, try to make the condition of the body realistic. You don’t have to go into great detail if you’re not comfortable or just don’t feel like it improves the story, but you don’t want to write anything that’s just scientifically incorrect.

I’m weirdly interested in mortuary science, so here’s my two cents / a few basic points on dead bodies. They go through a lot of changes in the first day after death, but will not usually smell for at least twenty-four hours, sometimes significantly longer. The only case in which a corpse would smell rotten within a matter of hours would be in a very hot, humid climate. Generally speaking, bodies rot quicker in the heat than in the cold, and in humid than dry climates. Submersion in water will also speed decomposition. In most climates, a dead body will not look like it is rotting until at least a couple days in, at which point the first sign of putrefaction (what we think of as decomposition) is a greenish discoloration on the abdomen. By five or six days after death, in most cases a corpse will look really grotesque—bloated, skin blistering and peeling, very discolored. It essentially gets gradually worse (lots of nuances to that process) until by three to four weeks the body is usually unrecognizable. Lots of “usually” throughout the process. There are just so many variable factors. The early stages of death are just as complex, and there are misconceptions that are incredibly widely spread as a result of portrayal in TV and movies. First of all, it’s a gradual process with the exception of the fact that the decedent is usually pretty pale at or shortly after death. But a dead body cools at around 1.6 degrees an hour and will be pretty warm for a while after death. Rigor mortis (intense muscle stiffness found in the hours after death) comes on slowly, peaks around twelve hours after death, and dissipates after around 48 when putrefaction begins. There’s also a lesser known inverse effect of the paleness that comes with death, known as postmortem lividity. Essentially, you get pale when you die because when your heart stops pumping, blood stops flowing. When blood stops flowing, it’s moved by gravity. It drains to the parts of the body closest to the ground, which causes the “top half” of the body to be pale, while the other half of the body is stained dark—usually purplish blue, sometimes other colors based on various factors including cause of death and temperature. The pattern of lividity on a dead body is dependent on the position of the body after death. Someone who dies face up would have lividity (also called livor mortis) on the back side of their body. As far as forensics, the pattern of lividity and temperature of the body when found tell law enforcement a lot about the person’s death, and can totally be used in crime solving. Also, funeral homes generally embalm and put makeup on a decedent before the funeral to make them look a little less unnerving to the living. If your story deals with the death of a character’s family member or very close friend, it would be realistic to have them go to a “viewing” at a funeral home, where they would be allowed to view the body (usually in mortuary makeup) to say goodbye. Having been prepared by a mortician, a body at a viewing wouldn’t look particularly discolored or outright frightening, but in my experience dead bodies almost never really look like they’re sleeping.

It’s always important to try to put yourself in your characters’ shoes, but this is especially important when writing about death and loss. The portrayal will be far more impactful and emotionally accurate if you really feel it. It might sound intense, but when writing an important death in a story and other characters’ reactions to it, I spend a while making myself sad by imagining someone equally close to me dying. Sounds messed up, but it helps me write better. 🤷🏼‍♀️ ⚰️

I know this is a serious post, but nonetheless, hard lol. #tubbybyebye