8.18.2016

Writing about Loss

Love and death play the primary roles in driving a novel forward. Writing about the former is easier: you can put boy and girl (or the variants) in any configuration, and the reader will be interested in how they come together. To effectively convey loss, however, is far more difficult. What exactly is grief? How do put yourself in the character’s shoes and express thoughts that convince a reader who really has suffered?

The best way is to have trauma in your past, of course. Many great writers have suffered grievous personal loss in their childhood. They write of what pains them. By the time most writers have reached adulthood, they have lost at least their grandparents. What did the absence of Grandma feel like? What did you like to do most with her? What made her laugh? The grief process is not so different from the way we think about most things: revolving in cycles, remembering outstanding moments.

If you have suffered no deaths in the family, or you saw your grandparents once in a blue moon and you didn’t feel much of anything when they died, you have to find other sources within. You can start with absence. The death of a person means you can no longer talk to them, exchange feelings that are meaningful to you. Stop right there, and drill down. What did you talk to Grandpa about? How did you try to please him? What secrets would you tell, or better, how did you shade the news you were sharing in general in a way that would connect with him?

A character can be upset about being deprived of the opportunities to connect in these ways. That can lead to stories about them, large and small, that show the reader why the dead person is missed. Your character can also be depressed. Loneliness is such a drag. Yet more than that, you get used to being with someone. You have habits that are shared. How frequent they are determines how much you miss them. You can write about the depression of dragging through days where once-shared activities are performed joylessly solo.

Writing about loss itself requires a depth of personal philosophy that most people don’t possess. Yet you can enumerate what is lost, then frame that in terms of the person suffering. Life is such a blind, unheeding rush that conveying the gaps may work just fine.

Exercise: I don’t think most people beat their breasts after even a deep loss, and that sort of writing strikes me as corny. Yet a character can experience unexpected moments of sadness, of tears coming to the corner of the eyes without warning. The mere contrast with the everyday can jerk the reader out of complacency. You don’t have to write that much, as long as the contrasts are sharp.

“Life is unfair. Death is unfair. Anger is a natural reaction to the unfairness of loss.”
—Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


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