How to Write About Grief: 5 Things to Consider When Writing Difficult Topics

Author Sadie Hoagland shares 5 things to consider when writing difficult topics and how to write about grief, including how to handle honesty, trauma, and abstraction.
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Author Sadie Hoagland shares 5 things to consider when writing difficult topics and how to write about grief, including how to handle honesty, trauma, and abstraction.

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I didn't set out to write a collection of stories about grief and loss; I think to do so would have been almost overwhelming. Instead, American Grief in Four Stages, grew a story at a time.

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(Click here for 5 ideas on writing effective grief in fiction.)

I wrote one story about a teen narrator whose sister has been murdered and who needed an extreme voice to counter her extreme feelings. But after that story was done, I felt like it was only the beginning of thinking about grief for me, its place in our culture, and my own complicated experiences.

These were not easy or simple themes to tackle, and different challenges presented themselves. But along the way, I did learn a few things (as one would hope), like…

How to Write About Grief: 5 Things to Consider

Don't be afraid of honesty, or ambivalence.

Grief is not just one feeling, it has many stages and manifestations and can be complicated by other emotions like anger, helplessness, or sometimes even relief (if the person was very ill, for example). And within mourning there are moments of laughter, of happiness. This doesn't lessen the grief, but rather reveals the complexity of the experience. Ambivalence, feeling opposite emotions at once, gets a bad name and our culture tends to resist it. But life is complex, as are people, even the people we love. Don't be afraid to allow your writing to reveal that too, as good writing should.

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Getting Started in Writing

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Start small, but eventually work to find the heart of your piece.

When you are trying to write about a large experience, like a death and by proxy a life passed, it can be daunting. There are so many memories, so many moments. Try to think of the most important aspects of your relationship with that person, negative and positive, and use small emblematic moments, scenes, gestures, or even objects to represent that aspect of the relationship. Use those small moments to build your text. But pay close attention to what is difficult to write, or what you are consciously avoiding. Writer Noy Holland once wisely said that if you find a trouble spot like this, it's necessary to dig deepest right there. For writers of difficult topics, this might be an emotional landmine, but perhaps it's also the hidden heart of your piece waiting to be revealed.

(Voluntary Masochism: Writing With Emotion)

Experiment with genre and form.

Many people gravitate toward nonfiction or poetry to write about grief and losing a loved one. But fiction may be able to get at the heart of an issue the way other genres cannot. I have a friend with an ill sibling, who had written about her sibling's illness in nonfiction for years, but it was a fiction piece about some of the resentments that care giving can build that most affected her family. She had struck a truth with a story that she couldn't get at in essay or poetry form. For me, getting creative with form helped me approach the topic that I didn't feel able to sit down and write literally at first. I'm a fiction writer, but even when I wrote an essay about that event, I used a form that would help provide structure to an event that seemed chaotic in life. I borrowed the pantoum form for the essay, a form I eventually broke with when I was ready. But it gave me a place to start, and also let me use literary repetition in ways that reflected that strange repetition of the days following a death. Focusing on form also allowed me to somewhat shroud the experience, to cover it with language out of respect, but also out of fear. If you get stuck when writing one genre, try an exercise in another genre to see if that can help you move forward.

Some grief is complicated by trauma.

And there's a reason it's hard to write about. In her pivotal text, The Limits of Autobiography: On Trauma and Testimony, Leigh Gilmore writes that "language fails in the face of trauma, and that trauma mocks language and confronts it with its insufficiency." In addition, there are commonalities in texts that deal with trauma, and many texts include a need to restate and restate what happened, to defend it as if someone was already questioning the veracity of the experience. This is because trauma lives outside of everyday experience. If this sounds familiar: Practice simply writing what happened in the most basic terms as a starting point. Acknowledge the difficulty, and possible stress, of this activity. Realize that your reaction is normal, you haven't broken a taboo, but the languageless space into which you are reaching makes you feel as if you have. For me, I needed to at least try to contain what seemed uncontainable. What I eventually realized was this difficulty—our culture's inability to speak honestly about suicide and violence—was in fact the heart of my book.

Give yourself what you need.­­

Some amount of abstraction is necessary to write about your experience; a certain distance is needed. It may take months, or even years before you are ready (and that's okay!). And yet even with that distance­­­­, mid-paragraph intense emotions may arise. Take time to feel these and yet don't let them keep you from returning to the project. There is an inevitable temptation to connect "writing" with "healing," but that is perhaps an oversimplification. Yes, writing can be therapeutic, but there's no guarantee of that. And it also doesn't mean it will be easy, or always feel good, or always be exactly what you need in the moment. Come up for air. Practice self-care. But know that to write about it well, you can't go over it or under it, you have to go through it.

If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you’re seeking isn’t craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren’t good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can’t write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly.

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