It was always my intention to write a post along these lines, following on from the one about killing off characters.
I have noticed that a decent number of writers produce blog posts and You Tube videos about character death, but that very few really delve into the aftermath. Yet, grief is very real, and cannot be ignored in our fiction.
There are various theoretical models of grief, and of course, none can hope to explain the complex and often overwhelming process, which is rarely, if ever, linear.
Probably one of the best, and most widely used, divides grief into 5 main stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Your characters, having lost loved ones, will need to go through the various stages, although not necessarily in order.
It’s perfectly possible that, in the course of the story, you won’t show every stage. Sometimes, a time lapse means that characters have passed through much of the intense anguish, and reached a point of resolution and healing, by the time the story continues.
Also, the story itself may end too soon to take the character through the process. The reader can only imagine how he or she might cope, long-term, with the loss.
If this is how it works out, in the context of your plot, then that’s fine, but it’s important to examine your own feelings, and ensure that you’re taking the right approach for the particular story. To skip over the pain of our characters, because we ourselves cannot face it, is a huge compromise, and will result in shallow, somewhat empty versions of the tales that, in our hearts, we long to tell.
All of us, during the course of our lives, have surely experienced grief: multiple times, in various ways, just one of which is bereavement.
So definitely, it makes sense to draw upon own experiences and memories – and it would be hard not to, to some extent.
At the same time, you should know your characters intimately, and the exact ways in which the loss affects them, will become obvious to you, as you allow yourself to really feel, and stay with, their pain.
As with any other aspect of storytelling, you should show more than you tell, and be specific, rather than general. This is what will make the situation seem real to the reader. Consider any religious or spiritual beliefs that your characters hold, as these will obviously be important.
Of course, the nature and circumstances of any fictional death, the age of the person who has died, the precise relationship to each remaining character – these are all factors that will come into play.
An elderly relative dying of a heart attack, compared to a child being knocked down by a lorry. Vary that yet again to a baby lost due to miscarriage – or abortion. There are so many variables that generalised writing advice will never be adequate. I can only emphasize that the pain needs to be experienced and honoured – and subsequently, portrayed.
For specific advice on writing about child death, please see my post on that subject.
If a grieving character experiences symptoms of PTSD or clinical depression – maybe has panic attacks – research these issues, as fully as you can.
Even if you’ve been through something similar yourself, do your research anyway, because each person’s experience of the same conditions is going to vary. It’s worth taking the time to be thorough, in order to make your work as authentic as possible.
I did write a post about my own approach to mental health and related subjects in my fiction, which may be of interest.
Take your time, and allow yourself as many writing breaks as you need.
Ultimately, what matters is to do justice to your story and characters. Don’t rush them through their grief, just so that you can finish your novel sooner. Your book could end up helping real people through their own darkest moments. It has to be worth taking longer, and going deeper, in order to achieve that.