Friday, May 25, 2012

The Five Stages of Grief

By Jill Williamson

I’m currently working on a dystopian novel in which the village my main characters live in was attacked and all of my characters lost loved ones.

I know that this is a big deal, so I’ve been studying grief and how it affects people so that I can accurately portray that in my different characters.

In her book, On Death and Dying, published in 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed that there are five stages in the grieving process that people go through in reaction to the pain of loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. And people can grieve all types of things: the death of a loved one or pet, a divorce, the loss of a life dream, coping with a terminal illness, a major break-up, going to prison, and even the withdrawal of addictive substances.

Not everyone grieves in the same way, nor do these stages always come in order. Some people might progress straight through the stages. Some might bounce between them, going from anger to bargaining to depression and back to anger and so on. And some people might skip whole stages and not experience every single stage. And according to Kubler-Ross, women are more likely than men to experience all five stages.

There also isn’t a set time frame for people to heal. Some might go through the stages of grief quickly. Some may never get over it until they die, stuck forever in the denial stage.

The stages, commonly known by the acronym DABDA, are:

1. DENIAL- Numb with disbelief, your character might deny the loss in order to avoid the pain and protect himself from becoming completely overwhelmed. Life is meaningless. Nothing matters anymore. He may become isolated. Or he may go on as if nothing has happened.

Examples: A child grieving a divorce might believe his parents will change their mind and reconcile. A girl whose fiancé left her at the altar might be unable to concede that the relationship is really over. A guy whose father died might expect him home at the same time each day. And an addict might say, “I don’t have a problem. I can stop when I want.”

2. ANGER - As reality sets in and your character accepts the devastation has occurred, he is likely to get angry. He may lash out at everyone. He may look to blame someone: himself, another person, the deceased person, God. He may unintentionally or intentionally hurt people he loves to make himself feel better.

Examples: A child grieving a divorce might pick a parent to hate. A girl whose fiancé left her at the altar might send hate emails or phone calls, demanding to know why. A guy whose father died might accuse his mother of killing his dad, then feel guilty for saying such a thing and hate himself. And an addict might be angry they have this problem and look to blame someone who got them started.

3. BARGAINING – A million “if onlys” and “what ifs” will start running through your character’s head. He will want to go back in time and rewrite history. “If only I had been there. If only I hadn’t gone to that party. What if he would have stayed home that day? If only I hadn’t complained so much.” He might also try to bargain with God. “If you will bring him back, I’ll be a better son. I’ll dedicate my life to working with the elderly.

Examples: A child grieving a divorce might pitch in more at home in hopes that being perfect will mend what’s wrong. A girl whose fiancé left her at the altar might say, “Can we still be friends?” or “I can change!” A guy whose father died might wish he’d taken his father to a different doctor or done it earlier. And an addict might think, “God, I promise to never use again if you’ll only help me out of this trouble.”

4. DEPRESSION – About the time when most friends and family think your character should be over this already, he’ll be consumed with intense sadness. The magnitude of his loss is overwhelmingly depressing, and he feels as though it will last forever. He may isolate himself. Cry. He may reflect on all the bad times, wishing he could go back and do it differently. He may feel empty. Despair. There is no point in going on. He will not be talked out of his depression. He cannot snap out of it. Encouragement from others doesn't help. Nothing does.

5. ACCEPTANCE – This stage doesn’t mean your character is all better. He has just learned to accept and deal with the reality of his situation. It is permanent. And he will never be the same again. Sometimes the goal is to have more good days than bad. Happy moments might cause him to cycle back to guilt, thinking, “Why should I get to be happy when he is gone?” But he will learn to adjust his life to this new normal and get on with his life.

Sorry this is a depressing topic! But if you were to write about someone who is grieving a major loss, it’s important to understand these steps.

What do you think would be the most challenging thing in writing about grief?


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30 comments:

  1. Great post, Jill, thank you so much! I can't wait to use this in my next project. ;)

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  2. Thanks for such a great post! In my one of my WIP's my MC doesn't lose a person, but something else, her freedom (due to a kiddnappping and being forced ino slavery). Would she grieve that in the same way?

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    1. I think it depends on how long she's a captive. Is the story about someone coming to rescue her? Or is the story about her new life as a slave? If it's about her new life as a slave, I think she would grieve the loss of her old life and freedom. But if the story is about her being caught for a short period of time, the full process might not play out before she is rescued. It might start, though. She might start out in complete denial, then get angry, which could get her into trouble as a slave. And she might bargain too. "My dad will pay you anything if you let me go."

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    2. Thank you! I will have to work on thTa one.

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  3. Interesting post! My character will be grieving at the end of my book's sequel, because I'm going to kill a character (most likely), but not until then.
    This made me think of White Collar, the FBI show. The main character's girlfriend dies, and he goes through a lot of grief. I noticed you didn't talk about outward signs much; the MC of White Collar got 'the shakes' when he started thinking about how his girlfriend died. Maybe the characters get insomnia, nightmares, bags under their eyes, start failing at school...

    Thanks for the awesome post! :)

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    1. Yeah, that's true, Sarah. There would be physical results of the character's emotional state, depending on what he was telling himself or how he was behaving. With each stage of grief there are lots of ways a character might act.

      No, I've never seen White Collar, but it sounds interesting.

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    2. I love White Collar!

      Thank you for the great post. In my WIP I've got fully planned out scenes where I know some of my characters die, but the events directly afterwards are less clear. This has really given me some food for thought about how my different characters will react differently to the death. Thank you!

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  4. Great post! I actually have already written down all five stages in my writing notebook for reference, but it helps to have an overview. I think the hardest part about writing grief is, being that I've never experienced it much myself, I don't know how to accurately portray that the characters are feeling these emotions and still going on with their life.
    Thanks again :)

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    1. You're welcome, Kayla. It can be difficult to write about things we've not experienced. Be glad you haven't experienced such grief, though! You can always interview someone who has experienced a similar situation. I've interviewed a lot of people for my books to get my facts straight. Be cautious about who you ask, though. You want to ask someone who won't be hurt by talking about it.

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    2. I've had quite a bit of greif in my life, so it's easy for me to write about the stages I went through, but I know I dont react like anyone else I know. I'm different.

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  5. Awesome post! I actually had to deal with this in my current WIP and it wasn't always easy. Thanks, Jill!

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  6. Cool! It's so interesting and amazing how the human brain works! Thanks for the post! Oh, and the contest looks interesting too.Thank you!

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  7. This post is much-needed for me! I start my book when my character is in the acceptance stage (now that I know what it's called) -- mainly because I didn't know how she was supposed to feel in the other stages. But I think this will help me understand how she felt when 'it' happened. Thanks, Jill.

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    1. You're welcome, Emii! Glad it helped. :-)

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  8. This is a depressing topic, but one needed. After all, going through grief is something that affects our characters, so we need to know what they're dealing with. In fact, this post can be helpful when we're trying to help friends who have lost loved ones, too.

    Today a character strode onto the pages of my current WIP and started a seedling of an idea for another novel...and he just lost a dear friend. So... =) Thanks, Jill! For helping me understand him better!

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    1. You're right, Rachelle. It is depressing. But I'm glad to know that it helped. And it's always fun when a new character strides into your life. :-)

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  9. Great post! It was really helpful, since my characters are usually in the anger stage- forever. That's it. So this should help me work around some other options.

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    1. LOL! The anger stage forever could get troublesome if ALL the characters were stuck there. But I think it could really work for one character to be stuck there.

      Glad you have some other options to consider now though. :-)

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  10. Thank you for the post, Jill! It was really helpful.

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  11. Thank you, this is so helpful! I'm starting a WIP where my MC has lost both a father and a best friend. Is there any particular amount of time each stage takes? Or does it vary from person to person?

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    1. It varies for each person. So you'd want to take a close look at your character and think about his traits and how those, combined with the grief stages, will cause him to act. And some of it might be double when you consider that he lost two people at the same time. Ouch.

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  12. Thank you for explaining this! I have researched it before, but it is nice to see again.

    One thing I might have to add: I like to see those first few moments of grief, like when someone might first hear that their house has burned down, as "This can't be happening!" thoughts as the early stages of denial. Nothing sinks in for a couple minutes, or longer, and the situation doesn't seem real.

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    1. Good point! When you're in denial, it is like the whole thing might not be happening at all. Like you might wake up and find that you've been having a bad dream.

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  13. Fabulous information! One of the characters in my WIP is terminally ill, and so I could see this coming in useful as I'm rewriting. ;) Thanks so much!

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  14. Thanks so much! I have a feeling I will be using this a lot with my work in progress. It's a story about a highly athletic girl that loses the use of her legs in a car accident. I also have never experienced a whole lot of grief, so it is hard for me to write about it. This will really help, though!

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  15. I think it would just be very difficult to write all five stages lol.

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