Grief has been long understood as the eventual progression of steps we walk through after a loss. Most think of it as a straight route through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, but the truth is that grief is a mess of loops and tangents and backtracking through these emotions without a specific or defined trajectory.
It also has more parts than we once knew, adding shock before denial and testing before acceptance. Let’s break down the steps to better understand real grief so that we can write about it with better accuracy.
First, every person—and therefore, every character—experiences grief differently, and we grieve over many types of losses: a loved one dying, the end of a relationship, losing a home or a job, amputation, terminal health diagnoses, and having to drop out of a program, etc.
Second, grief is cyclical and has no specific rhyme or reason. We can jump around, repeat, and remain stagnant in several stages before we make progress in dealing with our losses, and the process will take longer for some than others.
Here are the stages:
Shock | Initial shutdown at receiving the bad news. This typically comes with numbness, fogginess, or disbelief. This is when we run on autopilot, protecting us from that early pain.
Denial | Avoiding the inescapable. Although psychology has deemed denial as a negative symptom, in grief, denial is healthy in moderate quantities. It’s the brains way of making itself feel better until it can fully face the loss. Easing into the difficult reality is denial’s job, ensuring that we don’t face it all at once.
Anger | Aggravated outburst of bottled-up emotion. This may be anger at the source of our loss—the person who died or left or fired us, etc. Sarcasm or increased irritation from minor problems is caused by the energy needed to move on. Anger can happen at any period of grief, and it often cycles.
Bargaining | Futile pursuit of getting back what was lost. This is when people beg god or the universe to reverse the tragedy, promising to live better, do better, and end bad habits in exchange. These can generate uncomfortable conversations that lead nowhere.
Depression | The final comprehension of the unavoidable. This is accompanied by sadness and crying, loss of appetite or disrupted sleep patterns, unexplained aches and pains, and it seems like this could be the end of our life. And it is the end of an old normal.
Testing | Pursuing genuine paths forward. While in that dark pit of depression, we recognize that we can’t stay there forever. Thus, we start experimenting for ways out, doing things to relieve the despair, crawling out of the dark hole toward acceptance.
Acceptance | Finally establishing a new normal. Recognizing the importance of the person or thing lost, we lack the anger once harbored for it or the need to barter for its return. Instead, we begin building our new lives. This comes with absolute peace, but the stage is so hard won that most never fully reach acceptance.
Managing each of these states accurately within a character’s story arc takes careful planning. Or, at least, that’s what I like to think. I planned each bit for my new diary story where a mom realizes she will die to give birth to her baby. I’m sure they’ll change slightly for organic developments.
We also naturally understand these steps when we cause grief to our characters, leading them through their own loops without planning, but there’s something to be said for a little structure, even if it comes afterwards, in revision.
The most important thing to note is that reality comes in variety—not just excessive crying or vowing revenge. Some process internally and others externally. We all cope differently, so this means creating distinct reactions that don’t simply end, no matter if the world needs saving. This is why reactions sprinkle through a person’s life instead of stopping it.
My point is, if you’re going to tackle grief with your characters, be sure to keep it in sight as your creations interact with the world.
Have you tackled grief in your stories or plan to? Tell me about how you’re tackling it in the comments below.