Good writing evokes emotions in both the writer and the reader. Through your writing, you can process and share a sense of happiness, excitement, anxiety, anger, and more—including grief. At Writer’s Relief, we know a strong emotion like grief can be difficult to write about. But it’s important to express your sadness, not only for your own emotional well-being, but to genuinely share the power of grief and loss in your poetry, short story, essay, novel, or memoir. Here are our best tips and advice for writing from grief and loss.
Writing Authentically From Grief And Loss
Try journaling. This is the most common way to write from grief. There’s no pressure—you don’t have to worry about getting your journal writing proofread, formatted, or ready for submission in time to meet a deadline. You don’t need a cohesive plot or world-building to journal, and proper grammar and sentence structure aren’t important, since you’re writing for yourself. But writing in a journal can help you deal with the emotions you’re feeling. Self-care is important, and putting your grief into words can help you see your loss from a new perspective while opening your mind to new ideas.
Don’t censor yourself. When you are writing about sorrow, don’t focus on grammar or typos in your first draft. Instead, simply write and allow yourself to truly feel your sadness. You can come back to this writing later and use it as a touchstone for expressing grief, and then proofread and edit. But don’t over-edit or make changes too quickly: You don’t want to lose the raw emotion.
Even if it’s hard, keep writing. You may not feel like writing, or you may feel that what you’re producing isn’t very good. And it may not be, but that’s not important. What’s important is that you continue to create while you are grieving, because it will help you move forward. And if you need to cry while writing about sorrow…it’s okay to cry. Some of the best writing makes us cry when we read it. For example, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights chronicles her grief after the loss of her daughter, and her book The Year of Magical Thinking follows the death of her husband.
You may have to put aside what you’ve written for a while until it’s less painful for you to revisit, and that’s okay too.
Show grief in your writing, don’t tell. If you write, “she cried,” your character is expressing grief. But to really share your character’s sorrow, it’s much better to show it. “She let out a heart-wrenching wail as she fell to her knees” shows the depth of the character’s loss and pain. The impact of grief comes through much more strongly when you show instead of tell.
When we grieve, we might want to be alone for long stretches of time, but this won’t make for compelling reading. Remember to keep the pace of your poem or story moving forward.
Understand the stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are all stages of grief, and they can happen at any time and in any order. When sadness and loss are fresh, there is an intensity and rawness to the emotions you or a character feel. The pain is sharp, and there could be shock and anxiety along with any combination of the stages of grief.
Grief that has been carried over a period of time is different. You could still be experiencing the basic stages of grief, but there may also be a sense of numbness, or of an inner burden. Actions taken now may be based on the memory of what was lost, and the loss may be ingrained into a character’s thoughts or actions.
By journaling grief and writing about it while you experience the various stages, you can make your characters’ reactions more realistic and heartfelt.
While it can be difficult to write about grief—especially your own—putting your feelings into words can help you feel better and make your characters seem more genuine. Writing that pulls at our heartstrings and brings tears to our eyes can be moving and memorable. But if you feel your personal grief is too much to bear, be sure to talk to family, friends, or a medical professional.
Question: What literary moments of grief brought tears to your eyes?
I try to use the senses to show grief, rather than describe it. How a character feels, a surge of bile at bad news, a throbbing headache from weeping and so on. I pull from personal experience. I also reach back to my days as a chaplain at a hospital, where grief and loss was a daily crisis asking my help, and use those experiences to try an empathize deeply with what my character is experiencing. It’s not unusual when I’m really deep into someone’s reaction to grief to find myself crying as I write. When that happens, I know either that will be good writing — or really bad. So I always wait a few days to review those sections.