Writing About Grief and Loss

Characters tend to die a lot in fiction, for obvious reasons. For one thing it’s an easy way to introduce drama and suspense, and to raise the stakes in dangerous situations. It would after all be a bit silly if you wrote about a war in which none of the named characters died (unless you’re writing for children, perhaps). Even Disney is prepared to kill off at least one character per movie.

But it’s one thing to write about a character dying, and quite another to portray how the death affects the other characters. Sadly there are at least a few works of fiction out there in which the protagonist loses someone they’re close to (usually a parent) and the death does nothing more than serve as a plot device while the protagonist remains largely unflustered by the tragedy.

In reality, the death – particularly the sudden and violent death – of someone you know has a profound effect, and if it happens to you you’re probably never really going to “get over it”.

I had grasped this concept more or less as just plain common sense when I was younger, but at the end of 2016 I went through the experience of losing someone myself and learned some painful lessons in the process. And here is what I learned.

The person I lost wasn’t a family member, but a childhood friend. He was one of the oldest friends I had, in fact. We bonded over our mutual love of video games, and had a similar cynical but secretly good-humoured view of the world. We both loved stories, reading and movies. His name was Alexander. He was three years younger than me. He introduced me to the graphic novel series Fables, countless games including Grim Fandango, and often talked about his travels in various countries. I envied him, in all honesty – he was so much more adventurous and willing to take risks than I ever was.

Then one day in the summer of 2016, right out of the blue, I had a phone call from my sister. Alexander had been killed in a road accident, at the age of only 28.

He never even made it to the hospital.

My initial reaction was total shock. How could this have happened? The first thing I said over the phone was “WHAT?“. Shortly afterwards I started crying.

I spent most of the rest of that day feeling numb and empty. Nothing really seemed to matter. I didn’t cry very much, but simply went through the motions as if I were on autopilot. My sympathetic work supervisor repeatedly said I could go home, but I said I couldn’t see much point – I could either be miserable at work and get things done, or be miserable at home and do nothing.

I eventually recovered and started to feel like myself again, but later on I experienced feelings of anger and nihilism. What was the point in being alive if it could end that suddenly and pointlessly? I raged at hearing people say he’d “gone to a better place”.

Now, months later, I’m still not “over it”. I’ve gone back to life as usual, but little things remind me of him right out of the blue, such as the other day when I was in a comic book shop, found a copy of Fables and suddenly had a lump in my throat, or when I was listening to the Grim Fandango soundtrack and unexpectedly found myself thinking about how we played the game together and how we laughed at a funny easter egg he’d found. Twice now he’s appeared in my dreams. Not doing or saying anything – just there and looking at me, expressionless. I can’t forget him and I don’t want to, ever. Even when thinking about him makes me sad, I cherish that sadness because it means I still have him here in my heart. It means I haven’t forgotten him, and such a good person and such a good friend deserves to be remembered.

And this is the important thing when it comes to writing about grief and loss in fiction. A deceased character should never be brushed off as if they never existed in the first place, or worse be treated as a plot device or handy motivation for the hero, rather than as a human being with a life, hope, dreams and fears. If your protagonist is truly close to the departed, then they cannot simply forget about them as it suits either you or the plot. In real life grief can be crippling, and it can and does change people for life. Death is something that shakes a person to the very core, and especially if it happens while they’re young and have never before lost anyone they were very close to. Allowing a dead character to be summarily forgotten is both unrealistic and disrespectful, and it doesn’t matter a damn that the character wasn’t “real” – they should be real to you, and to your readers. In reality, the dead never truly leave us. And they shouldn’t. 

I miss you, Alex. And I always will.

Neato text ornament here