Saturday, June 11, 2011

Good Grief! Examining the Five Stages of Grief

The five stages of grief is a concept that I never really thought about, until a fellow writer mentioned it briefly in a conversation we were having. So being the info junkie that I am, I quick did a Google search. What I found was immensely intriguing, and an invaluable resource.

I personally think most good novels have a character die at some point, or some other event where a character has to deal with grief (eg. a breakup, someone moving away, divorce ect.). Now, I've never had a close family member die or encountered a major situation where I've been grieving, so I don't really understand the process of grief. That's where the formula of the five stages of grief comes in. I've found that having a believable process for how my characters grieve has given me a little more confidence in writing the more melancholic parts of my stories. Hopefully it will help you as well!

The Five Stages of Grief

1. Denial
Characters might do/think these things (in parentheses I've put the situation of the grief):
-"This can't be happening to me" (anything)
-Setting the table for an absent character that they're grieving for (divorce, someone moving away, death)
-Laying out clothes for their son/daughter (death of a young child, giving a child up for adoption)
-Putting food bowl/litter box (death of a pet)
-Keeping the absent character's room furnished, or continuing to furnish it (death, miscarriage, someone moving away)
-Acting like the absent character is still there, just away or on vacation (death, divorce)
-Not crying or acknowledging the loss (anything)
-Feeling numbness (anything)
-Trying to do physical activities that the character could do before, but can't (loss of a limb)
-"I feel fine" (loss of a limb, terminal illness)

These are a few that I came up with, but you have to judge what your character would and wouldn't do. This stage of grief is a temporary defense mechanism. This stage can last for a moment, or much longer. A character drawing away from other characters is another common reaction in this phase of grief.

2. Anger
Characters might do/think these things (in parentheses I've put the situation of the grief):
-"Why me?!" (anything)
-Wanting to "get back" at the cause for the issue (anything)
-Feeling angry with subject of grief (someone moving away, divorce)
-Getting angry with God, the world, or other deity (anything)
-Blaming them for leaving (divorce)
-Angry with themselves for letting it happen, even if they couldn't prevent it (anything)
-"It's not fair!" (anything)

Again, use your judgement for what your character would do. For example, not everyone would seek revenge, or get angry with God. Guilt also stems from this stage, like I mentioned in the point about a character blaming themselves. During this stage, the character can be very hard to deal with due to the misplaced emotions.

3. Bargaining
Characters might do/think these things (in parentheses I've put the situation of the grief):
-Making deals with God. Eg. "I'll be good forever if you promise to make this better" (anything)
-Making deals with a character who's leaving to try to get them to stay (divorce, someone moving away)
-"If I only live to see my children graduate..." (terminal illness)
-Wishing/praying the subject of the grief would come back (anything)

This stage is when the character has accepted that what they are grieving for is gone (or going), but they want to change it.

4. Depression
Characters might do/think these things (in parentheses I've put the situation of the grief):
-"What's the point of living?" (anything)
-Feelings of self pity, hopelessness, and bitterness (anything)
-Mourning the subject of grief (anything)
-Becoming disconnected from other characters (anything)
-Mourning dreams, and plans for the future (death, terminal illness)
-Feeling lack of control (anything)
-Sometimes feeling suicidal (anything)
-Crying (anything)
-Not talk a lot (anything)
-Not wanting to do things they enjoy (anything)
-Spending more time in bars/pubs (anything)
-Overeating (anything)

This is the stage where the character has realized that they can't change things, and don't see the point of anything. It is also recommended that other characters not try to cheer them up, because the character grieving needs time to process it.

5. Acceptance
Characters might do/think these things (in parentheses I've put the situation of the grief):
-"It's going to be alright" (anything)
-Makes the best of time they have left (terminal illness)
-Prepares for death, and gets their affairs in order (terminal illness)
-Realizes that life can go on without subject of grief (anything)
-Finds new things that they can do (lose of limb)
-Starts looking for a new mate (divorce, death of spouse)
-Gets rid of the subject of grief's belongings (death, gave up child for adoption, miscarriage, someone moving away, death of a pet)
-Reconnects with other characters (anything)
-Realizing that it isn't the their fault (anything)
-Seeing the sliver lining (anything)
-Remembering the good memories of the subject of grief (anything)
-Finding comfort, and healing (anything)
-Adjusts to life without the subject of grief (anything)
-Becoming thankful for things they have (anything)

Overall, these stages are very general, and it's good to remember that each character will deal with grief differently. Characters will also respond with more severity depending on the situation. For example, characters will have begun to grieve before the loss of the subject of grief if it was expected (eg. terminal illness), but if the loss is sudden then the character will grieve much more (eg. murder). Other factors that will influence the length and severity of grieving will include: relation to subject, type/amount of support, and the character's personality.

One last thought.
I'm not going to lie, this post has been a little bit difficult to write. Dealing with the loss of something or someone, or watching another deal with it is hard. However, this is what touches a reader's heart, and makes them fall in love with your writing. Writing a character's grief well is what gains sympathy from a reader which attaches them emotionally to your story. Having elements like grief in you story will enrich it a great deal.

P.S. I added the webpages I used to write this, and some other pages dealing with different types of grief to the "Helpful Links" page.

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