Monday, March 7, 2011

Writing About Handling Grief

I find it hard to know how far to go in writing about grief in fiction. Too little, and the rendition is shallow. Too much, and it's maudlin. I struggle with finding the balance, as I think many writers do. I began reading more books, mostly memoirs, by people who have struggled with grieving and moving on. Two I have returned to many times.

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt is his touching, funny and sad story of losing his daughter when she suddenly drops dead on the treadmill of an asymptomatic heart condition. She leaves three young children and a bewildered husband, who finds his life to be impossible. Rosenblatt and his wife move into the in-law apartment in their son-in-law's house to help raise three children. Rosenblatt himself had travelled as a journalist and, as a result, had been away too much to help with the day-to-day rearing of his own children. He masters one task in his new life: making toast every morning to meet the different and exacting demands of the children.

His story provides a guide to managing a new life against the darkness of loss. It is filled with vignettes of how he learns as much about himself as he does about his grandchildren.

Joan Didion was eating dinner one evening when her husband died at the table of a stroke. In The Year of Magical Thinking she discusses her denial of what happened with living a life without her husband. Again Didion's writing honestly of her pain and grief is offset by snippets of humor.

Not to make light of real grief and loss, I too struggled with how much to show when Mad Max loses her daughter in Book 1 of the Mad Max Mystery series. How do I convey the depth of her denial and pain? How do I lighten the mood for the children? I didn't want the book to descend into darkness and stay there, but I wanted the darkness to be just under the surface, ready to re-emerge when needed.

Now as I edit Book 2, the darkness is still there, sometimes discussed, never forgotten. A different kind of darkness enters Book 2. In one episode, Max confronts a memory from her childhood she would rather forget. It forms how she reacts when one of her grandchildren is put in jeopardy.

Last year, one member of my writing group gave me great advice. He told me I had to go to the "dark places within" and return to use the emotions to show what my main character was enduring. I'd rather not do that; however, he is right. I can take inspiration from others who have published guideposts on managing grief, but I can never make it feel real to my readers without returning from my own dark places.

Why didn't I decide to be a humor writer?


  1. Grief, like anger, powerfully felt, yet conveyed by subtle nuance. This, when one wants to carry on - loudly and with little restraint - for some time. Not fair.

  2. Not fair indeed, Donna. That's why we sometimes need to take a time out and have a good old-fashioned temper tantrum. Certainly clears the air.