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How to Write About Grief for Children (and Adults) in Fiction

Losing someone we love for the first time is something we don't forget, and art can make it easier to confront our loss. Here, authors Don Handfield and Joshua Malkin share how to write about grief for children (and adults) in fiction.

There are few things we experience as humans that have genuine permanence. Few moments within the course of our lives that truly change the fabric of our realities forever. One is the birth of a child, another the loss of a loved one. It was experiencing both of these life-altering events in succession that led us to writing our graphic novel Unikorn.

(Stan Lee's 1947 Guide to Writing and Selling Comics)

Don’s father-in-law and Joshua's mother-in-law both passed away from cancer within a very short period of time. Dealing with the loss of a parent is hard enough, but like many people, we were also tasked with explaining it all to our children. We wanted to find a way to do so that was honest, but also hopeful, and offered a way to preserve a meaningful connection to the ones we lost. Joshua and I have different religious backgrounds, but both believe there is more to human existence than what we can see or understand.

It was with this purpose in mind that we dove headfirst into writing Unikorn. Our goal was to create the kind of timeless story we enjoyed as kids, one with an uplifting and resonant message that would also help children better understand and deal with grief.

How to Write About Grief for Children (and Adults) in Fiction

Some of our fondest memories as kids were going to the Scholastic Book Fair and discovering perennials like Charlotte's Web, Watership Down, and Black Beauty. These were more than just great books for children. They were heartbreaking stories that tackled deep and meaningful themes adults could also relate to.

For almost every life-changing event in our lives, we found that we could recall what book we were reading and how it helped navigate us through those unique challenges. Books like Charlotte’s Web, which examined the transformative power of friendship, or Black Beauty’s resonant message of compassion for all creatures. These stories encouraged us to consider the world beyond ourselves in new ways. With Unikorn, we aimed to create a story that would help us be more mindful, more generous with our families, and more vigilant in holding onto the moments we are given and often take for granted.

In our story, a little girl named Maeve Everhart inherits an angry old horse named Percy. The only person who could ever get near the horse is Maeve's mother, who died in a tragic accident a few years prior. When the angry old horse's fly bonnet gets stuck on a nail and comes off, Maeve discovers a small nub on his forehead that makes her believe the animal might be a unicorn with a broken horn. Her quest to prove the animal is special and protect it from those who want to harm him form the central plot line of the book.

How to Write About Grief for Children (and Adults) in Fiction

The emotional story within that plot addresses how each of our three main characters—Percy, the special horse who might not be a horse, Jake, Maeve's dad, an army veteran and auto mechanic, and Maeve—deal with their grief from the death of Maeve's mother. Maeve begins our story in complete denial. In her mind, her mom is going to walk back in the door any moment. Her dad, Jake, is the opposite. He's lost the love of his life and doesn’t want any reminder of his wife that will bring him pain so he takes down her pictures to avoid thinking of her. Percy is just angry at his loss and lashing out at anyone and everyone who tries to get near him.

Initially, the trio of characters are all disconnected from each other—each refusing to face their loss. Over the course of the story, Percy not only serves as a connection to her mother’s past, but the bond Maeve forms with the animal also helps her heal. By the end, they’ve come back together as a true family.

Part of living is experiencing the death of the ones we love. As children we must watch our parents grow old and die. As humans we must look in the mirror and see the same. To that end there is also a big element of faith in Unikorn. Not in the traditional sense of the word, but in the sense that by investing in magic you can discover the wonderful—and even impossible—that is all around us. The idea is that magic might be in our own backyards, if we just know where and how to look.

Whether it’s believing in Santa Claus or believing in the love someone has for you—life is an act of faith. In the world of Unikorn, you never have to stop believing in magic, no matter how old you get. The magic of our message is not necessarily supernatural at all. It’s the belief that if we keep the ones we love in our memories and in our thoughts, they really never truly leave us.

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