The Grieving Process

21 Feb

by Biljana Likic


Sadness can be tough, I find. It can be hard to see when you’re going overboard. And since everybody handles grief differently, it can be tricky to suspend disbelief so much that everyone reading believes in the sadness, and not just the people that would react similarly. For example, if somebody found out their pet had died, and they went into the kitchen and blindly broke every plate and glass, an animal lover who’s been in that position before might understand why they did it, but somebody who hasn’t known that type of relationship might not. Personally, I would consider it an overreaction, but how can I judge the bond between pet and master when I’m not an animal person, and don’t have any conception of what the pet meant to them?

So the first thing to do would be creating a deep connection between the griever and the thing lost. If the reader doesn’t believe that the lovers love each other, when the woman dies and the man throws himself off a bridge they’ll think it’s contrived and silly. You need to show throughout the story that what they have is special, and I find one of the best tricks for doing this is subtle repetition. This means keeping the woman in the man’s thoughts. If you can have him naturally think about her, you’ll remind the reader about all the things he sees in her, which leads to a subconscious understanding that he loves her and that losing her could potentially crush him.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

He walked through the crowd, hands in his pockets, and the sun warmed his face when he stepped out of the shadow of a building. Fiddling with the keys, he crossed the street to his apartment and slipped sideways between two parked cars. His eyes followed a blonde briefly before remembering that she was out of town for the day. Letting himself into the lobby, he called an elevator and tapped his shoes against the carpeted floor.

Little things like this happen to everybody. You have a girl or boy on your mind and suddenly everyone with the same hair colour could be them. But you have to use this in moderation. In real life our thoughts move too fast for them to seem repetitive about stuff like this, but written down they’re painfully obvious if you overdo them. Hence, subtle repetition.

So they’re in love. But now she’s gone.

How does he find out? Is he at work? Does he hear about it the next day because his cell phone ran out of batteries? Does he watch her die? Did he have time to kiss her one last time, to say goodbye, hold her hand, believe that it could still be her on the sidewalk by his apartment?

Then there’s his reaction. His devastation, numbness, denial, whatever fits his character or stream of events best. It’s something that should come naturally. If you don’t know what his reaction should be, maybe he doesn’t know either. Maybe he flounders in a desperately emotionless void until those around him think he’s inhuman. Maybe that’s followed by inexpressible anger at everybody who dared imply that he didn’t love her, and general fury that she left him in the state of things as they are. Perhaps he starts analyzing the day of her death; if he’d convinced her to stay for coffee, the car would’ve just driven by. If he had noticed her fever, he could’ve gotten her to a hospital in time. If he’d realized how icy the sidewalks had been he would’ve forced her out of the heeled boots.

A person can drive themselves insane with if only’s. And notice how each one puts the blame on his shoulders.

Underneath everything though, there is a constant, aching sadness. The numbness is just the mind trying to protect itself from the acute sense of loss. Behind it all there’s the knowledge that something was taken away forever. Even if he finds it again in another person, it won’t be the same. And that’s where the deepest grief comes from.

But the most soul-stirring part, for me at least, would not be his anger, or his tears; it would be his acceptance. The strength he would need for this isn’t something that can be put into words, because accepting loss doesn’t mean forgetting it. It means continuing life, adjusting where he can. It doesn’t mean learning to live without her, but admitting the pain of loss, allowing himself time to mourn, but not letting it control his life. With acceptance comes the gift of being able to breathe without the air hitching in your throat, and being able to think about the future without the grip of total fear wrapping itself around your heart.

If the man can grasp that, or even just give us the hint that he will, the story is complete. Grief comes around full circle and the reader reaches a forlorn closure. But most importantly, they’re given the awareness that the man will go on. That it’s possible.

Along with the sadness, the reader is given hope.

That’s something I don’t mind walking away with.


Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She is in her first year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here and follow her on Twitter here.


14 Responses to “The Grieving Process”

  1. Aurora Blackguard February 21, 2011 at 9:35 AM #

    This was amazingly beautiful and well written! I would not for a second believe that you would not be published someday! Brava, Billy! Brava!

    • Biljana February 21, 2011 at 8:18 PM #

      That’s SO nice and encouraging… Thank you 🙂

  2. henya February 21, 2011 at 10:00 AM #

    Well written. I’m in the process of editing my book. The main character grieves over her daughter’s death. Your points are right on the mark. The reader has to believe the grieving character in order to generate an emotional connection.

    • Biljana February 21, 2011 at 8:19 PM #

      Thanks, glad it rang true. Good luck with editing!

  3. Kat Zhang February 21, 2011 at 11:04 AM #

    I’m going to go incredibly nerdy and quote Buffy on y’all. Your post just reminded me of this one scene where the protagonist (Buffy, is case you can’t tell by the name of the show) has just come back from the dead (yes, it’s that kind of show) and one of her friends says to her “If I had done that, even if I didn’t make it, you wouldn’t have had to jump. But I want you to know I did save you. Not when it counted, of course, but … after that. Every night after that. I’d see it all again…do something different. Faster or more clever, you know? Dozens of times, lots of different ways…Every night I save you.”
    For whatever reason, those lines have always hit me really hard as a portrayal of grief and regret.
    Okay, geeking over 😛
    Great post, Billy!

    • Biljana February 21, 2011 at 8:21 PM #

      Man that’s so depressingly gorgeous :(. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Savannah J. Foley February 21, 2011 at 12:08 PM #

    Wonderful article, Billy. ❤

    • Biljana February 21, 2011 at 8:21 PM #

      Thanks 🙂

  5. Cassie February 21, 2011 at 9:41 PM #

    I couldn’t have checked my e-mail at a better time! This article was beautifully written and super helpful, as I’ve been struggling to find a way to properly show the grief my MC feels after losing a friend. It’s tough finding a good middle ground because she wasn’t his lover, but she was certainly more than “some chick I know.” Subtle repetition is a fantastic concept that I will definitely use to make his reaction less contrive (as it was horribly, horribly contrived) and more poignant. Thanks for the great tips!

    • Biljana February 22, 2011 at 1:50 AM #

      I’m really glad you found it helpful! 😀 And I find those are the iffiest, when there’s a relationship that could’ve been but wasn’t really. Good luck :).

  6. priscillashay February 21, 2011 at 10:05 PM #

    ha..this reminded me of when i wrote my first draft, became so caught up in the plot, and forgot the bury the the son (my MP) didn’t have a chance to grieve.

    • Biljana February 22, 2011 at 1:51 AM #

      Hahahaha ohhh man….yeah good thing you caught that :P. Though I can’t say I haven’t done something similar. I think I killed someone off once and had people react with crazy tears one moment and then forget and move on in the next.

  7. Susan February 22, 2011 at 2:40 AM #

    This was lovely, Billy… Really. I think you’re right too: the best part for someone (and the readers) is the final hope after closure.

    Have you ever read CATCH-22? There’s a character that Yossarian (the MC) keeps referring to: the dead man he rooms with. In reality, there is no dead body in his tent, but rather the belongings of a private who was shot down and killed the day he arrived. So…there’s this constant ache in Yossarian that this kid (who he never met) will never get the grief he deserves…

    The grieving process you talk about doesn’t even get to start for Yossarian because he never actually knew the private — so it’s like Yossarian is stuck outside that circle with no the possibility for relief or hope.

    Oh dear, I’m rambling. All I wanted to say was “GREAT POST”. 😀

    • Biljana March 2, 2011 at 1:31 AM #

      Haha thanks, Sooz. I haven’t read it, but I have been eyeing it. That sounds incredibly depressing :(….

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