Grief and loss hit us when we lose anything that is important to us. Your character may have lost their husband, parent or child, but it can include divorce, a diagnosis of infertility, incarceration, the loss of the child you thought you knew, or the loss of the job that defined your entire self. Grief and loss encapsulate the pain we experience when all of a sudden life isn’t what we thought it would be.
The famous psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, was the one that labelled the ‘stages of grief’ that we’ve all heard about. Whilst working with terminally ill patients she postulated that when faced with our mortality we experience a series of emotion in a sequential manner. This model was broadened and accepted as relevant to all forms of grief.
To be honest, research hasn’t shown a lot of evidence that people move through the stages in an ordered and sequential manner. Sometimes they dance forwards and backwards, sometimes they skip a stage or more entirely. There is no ‘right’ response to loss. Remember this when crafting your character’s response to loss. But what these stages can do is give you a framework in understanding how they could respond.
When discussing defense mechanisms previously denial was one of the first. If you’ve just received painful news, a common reaction is to deny the reality of the situations. Thoughts like ‘this isn’t happening, this can’t be happening, I refuse to let this happen’ are not uncommon. An individual may isolate themselves to ensure their world of denial remains unchallenged. Denial can buffer the immediate shock of the loss and carry your character through the first wave of pain.
As denial fades, reality will begin to intrude. And with reality will come pain. An individual, the character powering the pages of your book, can deflect this distress and express it as anger. This anger can be aimed at defenceless inanimate objects as they tear through a journal or a house, at complete strangers that resemble the one associated with this pain, the doctor who diagnosed the illness, or it can be aimed at those closest to us…the ones we feel most comfortable showing our deep vulnerabilities to. On a far more intimate level, we may resent the person causing us pain or the one that left us. This type of anger can spawn guilt, which in turn can make us even angrier, spiralling and powering what can be a self-destructive response.
When overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and vulnerability, when denial and anger have been spent, your character, the one hurting and grieving, may seek to regain control. Bargaining can be a way to do that. Watching a character struggling with these sorts of statements can make for very poignant reading:
- If only we had sought medical attention sooner…
- If only I’d tried to be a better person toward them…
- God, please, take me instead.
This stage is marked by despair. Where the loss, its implications and its pain, is felt deeply and viscerally. All the emotions associated with depression – such as sadness, helplessness and hopelessness, along with the behaviours we see – isolating ourselves, losing interest in activities we usually enjoyed, sleeping less (or more), or loss of appetite, will be seen and experienced during this phase. It’s a normal and natural response to loss, but it’s also overwhelmingly painful.
Reaching this stage of mourning is a gift not afforded to everyone. Loss may be sudden and unexpected or we may never see beyond our anger or denial. But those who do will accept the reality of their new situation, the new norm that is now their life. It is during this stage that your character will readjust and reorganise and realign to the altered world they did not get to choose. They may not be happy, but your character will grow, change and evolve. They will begin to live again.
Each stage can be moments, days or an entire book. A character that has stagnated can deny for days, or be depressed for years. Others will jump between stages, denying then feeling deeply depressed, bargaining before returning to depression. If your character reaches acceptance then you’ve got yourself a hard-won story of growth and courage. If they don’t, you’ve got yourself a touching tale of a grief that won’t relinquish. Either of these, or the kaleidoscope of stories in between, can be a story that touches your readers and sparks a life-long love of characters that are authentic and real.
Do you have a character that has experienced loss? Did they experience any of the above? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.
Have a wonderful week,