Does grieving give us a better understanding of emotion, provide more empathy for others who are suffering? Does losing someone allow greater creativity, greater knowledge of the world? There is no simple answer to these questions. For some, perhaps grief does enhance the process of living, for others, it might not be as easy.
Writers are faced with different kinds of grief. A personal loss, a character loss, a character who is grieving themselves. To write about grief is not to seek or project negativity, but to reflect the truth of death which is a part of life.
Grief emerges in writing in different ways and along different gradients. Authors may write about personal experiences, or events they aren’t directly part of but relate to in some way. Whether the writer has experience of grief or not is irrelevant. We can all write and imagine grief. We see loss all the time, whether it’s on the news, in films, or in our own lives. The difference is that those who have experienced it can feel it more directly.
In Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling writes about Thestrals, beasts which can only be seen by those who have witnessed death. This is perhaps reflected in the process of writing itself, that to write grief truly we must know a little of it.
As a writer, I don’t choose to write in depth about grief, but knowledge of this experience does seep into my writing. However, it’s not about pouring myself and my pain into a character’s experience, but about making their experience real.
The aim with fictional grief is to make readers care. If they don’t care, then they won’t believe in the suffering of your characters, won’t be able to express empathy. To feel emotion when reading, whether happy or sad, is what readers look for. To be able to evoke those feelings is to write with honesty and heart. As humans, we naturally respond to the world around us and as readers, we seek to engage with stories which truly reflect our experience.
Honesty and vulnerability. These are the keys to writing about grief and to writing any story in fact. Readers don’t want fakery; representations of heroic characters who feel nothing. While many of us like happy endings in fiction, we all face challenges in life and a character without depth will soon fall flat on the page.
“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.” William Shakespeare