W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

NO 45: Writing about grief


Witnessing real grief is easy. Turn on the news. An Iraqi father holds his dead daughter, a Dafur refugee looks numb as she sits in a camp and tells of the hacking of her family and how she is the only survivor. Anyone who has seen FAHRENHEIT 9/11 remembers the mother of a dead soldier who goes to Washington, DC. A woman attacks her verbally. Then the mother walks toward the White House. Suddenly she bends over in a pain that permeates from the screen into every cell of the watcher.

An example of shown grief can be found in BROADBACK MOUNTAIN. The lover holds a shirt against his body and we know it contains a memory, and we know he regrets not having the courage to go with his lover. The mother, devastated by her own grief, lets him take the clothing away without ever admitting she knows the true relationship between her son and the guest. The pain is there, but it is never spoken. The actions say more than any dialogue.

This pain is what a writer needs to capture, not just for the three-minute newscast but what happens the next day, week, month, however long the character stays with the story. The reader needs to know how the loss is internalized into the character.

This is where showing versus telling comes into play. Writing about grief is one of the hardest things to do because it is so easy to slip into sentimentality that dilutes the pain.

Details show grief. They show how the character is changed by the tragedy whatever it is. Is there rage, a shutdown of emotion, fear, denial or acceptance – all the normal stages according to the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross? The stages make fertile ground for a writer.

We don’t want to tritely run our character through the stages showing a situation for each stage. Having different characters caught in different stages can set up conflict that adds to the drama of your work. A sister who refused to think about her dead brother, a mother who accepts his death because it released him from the pain of AIDS, his father’s anger that his son was gay can all illustrate grief over the same death.

Recovery from grief is not a timed event. A woman that twenty years later is still massaging everything her ex-husband said and did when he walked out is frozen in her grief but is in a different situation from a woman when cleaning the attic comes across some photos from her first marriage that triggers the rage she felt when her husband left her despite having a happy life since then. The way the grief is handled by each tells more about the character than if you said one was depressive and the other optimistic or whatever seemed appropriate.

A writer friend had to kill off a beloved character to develop another. She cried as she wrote the funeral, but she said that it helped write the pain of the fictional person. When I read what she had written, I knew she’d nailed it, despite having the good fortune of never having lost anyone close to her.


1. “Remorse is not nothing. Grief is not useless. It changes the heart of a people. It cautions them to think better, to think in new ways, before they are once again tempted to bomb and beat a people into submission, into ‘freedom.’ It makes them new – and eventually the society with them. One person at a time finally learns to feel. It’s called ‘soul.’

2. Mawmaw goes to the Vietnam War Memorial wall to see her grandson’s name. The memorial is a long black wall with all the names of the soldiers killed arranged chronologically. She was too short to reach it, so someone gets a stepladder so the old woman can climb.

“Mawmaw reaches toward the name and slowly struggles up the next step, holding her dress tight against her. She touches the name, running her hand over it, stroking it tentatively, affectionately like feeling a cat’s back. Her chin wobbles, and after a moment, she backs down the ladder silently.”
Bobbie Anne Mason IN COUNTRY

3. “That night in the hotel room, I looked at myself in the mirror for a long time but I didn’t shave off my beard or cut my hair. I kept thinking about Sean under the frozen ground and I had a crushed feeling in my stomach. I decided when my time came I wanted to be burned. I didn’t want to be down there under the ice.”
Michael Connelly THE POET

4. “I’d close my eyes more tightly or increase the flow of the faucet or turn up the radio. I didn’t let myself admit that the only way I might see you, again, was in that last moment when you would be back to gather your footsteps like an armful of brilliant dessert flowers, a consolation prize, you would present to me in return for losing you forever.

5. After great pain, a formal feeling comes
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round
Of Ground, or Air,
or Ought A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone

This is the Hour of Lead
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons recollect the Snow
First-Chill-then Stupor-then the letting go


1. Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen and paper and write until the timer goes off starting with the sentence “I never hurt so much as when…”

2. List all the things that happen a week after a funeral, ordinary, related and unrelated.

3. Describe what happens when a man aged 35 goes back to work after her three days of leave for his wife's death in a car accident.

4. Write 50 words describing the reaction of a mother as she listens to a doctor tell her that her child has cancer.


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