6 Tips for Writing Grief Realistically

March 3, 2022

By Rachel Evans


“The hero sobbed piteously over the corpse of her mentor, swearing to avenge him. After an hour of weeping, she wiped her eyes and returned to saving the world, setting her sadness aside until needed again at his gravesite.”


One of my biggest complaints with fiction is how writers handle grief. While slightly exaggerated, the above scene is similar to ones I’ve read in many published books. Grief is often treated in a farcical and clichéd manner, as if it isn’t a struggle.


Accurately depicting grief used to be a challenge for me too. But even though it’s hard to master, it’s a skill worth learning because it helps readers relate to characters. I’d like to share six truths that will enhance your portrayal of grief.


1. Grief Causes a Variety of Responses

If you absorb one lesson from this article, please remember this: crying is not the only response to grief. When I lost a loved one a year ago, I couldn’t cry for days, though I wanted to and felt like I should. That doesn’t mean I’m heartless. I just process grief inwardly instead of outwardly.


Below are a few examples that demonstrate the wide range of reactions people can have to bereavement.


  • Numbness: During times of deep sadness, people tend to act on autopilot in the short term, then process the death later.
  • Anger: This can be aimed at other people (the doctors who failed to save the person’s life), at God (even if the character doesn’t realize she’s mad at Him), or at nothing in particular.
  • Shakiness: You can show unsteadiness through word choice (“she trembled”) or similes (“his legs shook like Jello”).
  • Focusing on Others: When my grandfather passed away, my first thought was, Does Mom know yet? Because my own emotions were overwhelming, I concentrated on someone else’s well-being instead.
  • Resuming Routines: Amid a violent upheaval, people may seek comfort in tasks that are familiar and “safe,” such as working, cleaning the house, or taking a morning walk.
  • Pretending That Everything Is Okay: Grief is viewed as an emotion that should cease or be concealed once the funeral is over. So people mention the news in an offhand comment, then talk and laugh as if all is right with the world.
  • Denial: As a more extreme version of feigned nonchalance, some people outrightly deny the reality of death and convince themselves that the news is a joke or can’t be true.
  • Falling Apart: After hearing of a death, people may lose sleep, lack concentration, or experience an emotional breakdown (in public or private).
  • Crying: Though this isn’t the only response to grief, people do cry. Some cry upon receiving the news, some cry days or weeks or even years later, some cry in private (like me), and still others never shed tears at all.

2. Every Person Copes Differently

No one responds to or recovers from grief the same way, and neither should your characters. By crafting unique reactions, you’ll reaffirm and broaden readers’ understanding of your novel’s cast. They may glimpse a side of the characters they’ve never seen before. Perhaps the heroine who wears her heart on her sleeve hides her grief, or the hardened villain crumbles.


The latter scenario is from the Unblemished trilogy by Sara Ella. Throughout the trilogy, we’re led to believe that the villain, Isabeau, is motivated by a desire for vengeance. But when she returns to her wrecked home, where we think she’ll try to get revenge, she is instead broken with grief. The reveal works brilliantly.


 3. Grief Is Normal

As Christians, we’re encouraged to celebrate when someone dies. I agree that we shouldn’t be filled with despair, but we also shouldn’t be expected to instantly rejoice that our loved ones are in heaven while we’re left on earth.


Death is not natural, so it’s perfectly okay for us to be saddened by it, especially as children of God. John 11 records how Lazarus died, and even though Jesus knew He would resurrect His friend, He still wept.


Grief is normal. It’s human. By letting your characters grieve, you’ll avoid creating emotionless robots and remind readers that they don’t have to be stoic either.


4. Grief Doesn’t Fade Quickly

One of the main problems with grief in fiction is that a character is typically heartbroken for a couple scenes and then he’s happy again. But grief does not evaporate because the world needs saving.


Make your character wrestle with his grief. Don’t be afraid to show how it affects his life.


However, don’t pause the plot for a few chapters of unbridled emotion. This will drag the pace. Rather, use the character’s grief as a backdrop for the story’s events. His life has changed forever, and he can only move forward, even if he wishes he could regain the past.


Lauraine Snelling effectively weaves grief throughout her Golden Filly series. The main character, Tricia, doesn’t get over her grief immediately. It affects her day-to-day life, goals, and relationships. It doesn’t drive readers away or stagnate the story. Instead, it engages readers and produces empathy that keeps them turning pages.


5. Dramatic Speeches Are Unrealistic

I’m guilty of writing the “Hi, Dad, ten years have elapsed and I’m standing at your grave, lamenting how much I miss you and what a great father you were” sort of scene. Unfortunately, a speech like this has become a common cliché. If your character visits a loved one’s grave, try toning down the theatrics with the following tips.


  • Focus on Memories: In the original grave scene from one of my novellas, my main character spoke to her father. But after a reader pointed out that the monologue was unrealistic, I changed the scene so that she remembers little details about her father without voicing any of them aloud. Now the scene is ten times more impactful than it used to be.
  • Silence Speaks a Thousand Words: Silence is far more meaningful than words uttered to a gravestone. It conveys that the character’s grief has settled so deeply into her heart that she can’t talk about it, even when she’s alone and time has passed.
  • Crying: Depending on your character’s personality and how long ago her loved one died, she may or may not weep.

6. You Don’t Need to Provide All the Answers

“You’ll feel better in time,” “rejoice that they’re in heaven,” and “you’ll see them again someday” are quaint phrases that don’t relieve grief. I’m not saying these statements aren’t true. They are. But to a person whose grief is fresh and raw, they’re like slapping a bandage on a gaping, bleeding wound.


Instead, walk with your character through the darkness, the questions, and the doubts. Show her suffering from the ache that continually throbs.


You don’t have to tell readers that everything will be fine. All they need is a candle—one small, bright flame illuminating the darkness. A single ray of hope that indicates the pain won’t always be sharp, that dawn will rise at the end of the night, and that beauty exists in the midst of brokenness.


Skirting grief and treating it lightly is easy. But by realistically portraying it through a variety of responses and its lasting effects on the character’s life, readers will form a connection with your characters.


Portraying loss honestly doesn’t stop with the griever, however. You also need to consider how other characters might try to comfort, cheer up, or counsel that person (whether their actions are actually helpful or not). For tips on how to do that, fill out the form below to learn twelve ways characters can realistically react.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2018. Updated March 3, 2022.


Rachel Evans is a YA author living in Minnesota, where the cold weather gives her the perfect excuse to curl up with a mug of hot chocolate and the greatest Story ever told. Combining her passion for mental health with her love of fairy tales, she endeavors to create hopeful stories for a Grimm world. She is a student of the Author Conservatory and One Year Adventure Novel.


When she’s not writing, Rachel enjoys teaching piano lessons, reorganizing her rainbow bookshelves, cuddling her cat, and playing strategy games with her brothers.


  1. Jenna Terese

    Great article! I didn’t realize how badly I needed this. Thank you! 🙂

    • Rachel Evans

      Thank you! I’m glad it could help. 🙂

  2. Serenity

    Wow! That’s really great, Rachel!
    I think that all these principles will just as easily be applied to instances when a character hasn’t died, but hard things have happened – a trusted ally turns out to be a self-interested jerk, or a dear friend suddenly drops out of the story for one reason or another. There are lots of reasons people are sad, not just death, and I love how clearly and succinctly this article addresses those in a broad way.
    Well done!

    • Rachel Evans

      Thank you! And yes, these tips would also apply to those circumstances.

  3. Andrew Schmidt

    *claps* Excellent article! 🙂
    Yeah, I agree. People don’t always just stand there talking to a gravestone stone in that clichéd way. 🙂 If I got really sad like that, I’d probably get really quiet and very emotional, and if I tried to talk, I’m afraid my voice would get really choky.
    But again, great article! 🙂

    • Rachel Evans

      I’d probably respond the same way. I don’t understand how book characters can rattle off those speeches. XD

  4. Heather

    Holy spagoni, you’re fourteen!?!?
    This is amazing! Well done! I was expected a twenty-year-old or something to have written this… color me impressed. This is some solid advice. 🙂

    • Rachel Evans

      Thank you!

  5. Taylor Clogston

    Thanks, Rachel! This is an area I really need to grow in, and I think your article helped 🙂

    • Rachel Evans

      I’m glad it helped!

  6. Savannah Morello

    Amazing job, Rachel!! I really enjoyed this article. You not only talk about grief in a very fresh and vulnerable way, but you also write so beautifully, it makes me want to listen to you forever <3. Keep writing!!


    • Rachel Evans

      Aw, thank you, Savannah!

  7. Rachel Rogers

    Thank you for sharing from your own experience to write this article. That was brave, and the result is some solid, wise advice. And I really appreciate the detail you put into your article, too!

    And you have a fabulous name… 😉

    • Rachel Evans

      Thank you!

      You have a fabulous name too. 😉

  8. The Golden Light

    Thank you!!!!! My Nana (Grandma) died a few years ago and re-reading my old writing I am surprised at how unrealistic I made my characters feelings over losing a loved one be. Now it annoys me when I see it in other stories but I know some people (like how I was) just don’t know what it is like (which I guess is a good thing). I agree 110 percent to all that you have said. My reaction/grief was also the same as yours. *Hugs*

    Oh and another point: someone who is showing their grief may not understand the person who seems to just shrug it off and not care. Because from what I am told, and as said in this article, that is just how some show their pain.

    Thanks again! Great article!!!!

    • Rachel Evans

      Thank you! I’m glad it could help. And my old writing is unrealistic too. I think I used every cliché I listed in this article. XD

      That’s a good point! Since reactions to grief are so different, it’s easy for some people to judge others for not having the same experience.

  9. Savannah Grace

    Thank you for this post, Rachel! I sometimes have problems writing emotional scenes realistically (I tend to get over dramatic and have to fix that through editing, ha!) so this was seriously helpful. I’ll definitely be referring back! (also, do you blog anywhere? I’d love to read more posts by you :))

    • Rachel Evans

      I’m glad it could help! (I do have a blog of my own, but it’s private. I actually follow your blog, though, and I love the content you’re posting! Keep up the good work.)

  10. Chelsea R.H.

    This is a fantastic article! It’s super helpful and I’ll definitely be referring to it as I edit my trilogy (which contains, *cough* a lot of grief).
    The only thing I would add is that grief can be caused by a lot of things–death is only one of them. Something I’ve seen is that writers tend to gloss over grief if it isn’t caused by the death of a major character. But honestly, I have never lost anyone particularly close to me, but I have still felt horrible grief. Sometimes it can simply be from your best friend moving away (whether physically or emotionally), watching people you love suffer, or health issues. So there’s more than one reason for grief and often they’re overlooked.
    Anyway, great article! (I hope you don’t mind me saying that you have wisdom beyond your years–it would annoy me if someone said that to me though!) 🙂

    • Rachel Evans

      Thank you! I’m glad it will be able to help you as you edit your trilogy.

      I agree about the different causes for grief. People grieve about many things, not just death. I chose to focus the article on grieving death because that’s what I had been particularly thinking about. 🙂

  11. Dakota

    Great article, Rachel. Very insightful and well written. ( High Fives).

    • Rachel Evans

      Thank you! *high-fives back*

  12. Sandrina

    This is so true! We are almost exactly the same age 🙂
    Thanks for the advice…I need to go fix my scenes!!! Even though I have never lost someone close to me, I find putting myself in the same position helps. Thinking that if something happened to me that happened to my characters, how would I react? Thanks again!

    • Rachel Evans

      You’re welcome! I’m glad it could help. 🙂

  13. Parker Hankins

    This was an amazing post!! Thanks for this!! This is great and so helpful!!

    • Sandrina

      There you are again! 😉

    • Rachel Evans

      Thank you! I’m glad it could help. 🙂

  14. Samantha

    Amazing, I love reading articles like this that give me a thousand ideas for revising my books where I’m kinda stuck. The alternate character trait part is so true, but something I hadn’t fully considered before. It will also help keep someone truer to themselves and that is something I want to work on in my books. Anyhow… great article. & thanks a bunch.

    • Rachel Evans

      Thank you! I’m glad it could help you.

  15. Grace Johnson

    This was awesome, Rachel!!! I REALLY appreciate all of the examples you gave of responses to grief. This really broke it down for me, making it easier to assign my different characters unique responses. I’ll definitely be referring back to this article as I edit my novel. 🙂

    • Rachel Evans

      Thank you! I’m glad it will be able to help with your editing.

  16. Libby

    Rachel, thank you so much for writing this. I had to fight back tears as I remembered how it feels to deal with grief. What you said is so true. I will definitely take into consideration what you have here and apply it to my writings. To be honest, I was actually surprised that you were fourteen. Like Heather, I expected someone eighteen or older to be the author. But thanks so much for breaking the low expectations. Thumbs up! I’m fourteen, too.

    • Rachel Evans

      *hugs* I’m glad it could help you! And thanks.

  17. Ruth Miranda

    death is NOT natural? I’d say death and birth are actually two of the most natural things in life…

    • Rachel Evans

      Hi Ruth! Thanks for your comment.

      I agree that birth is one of the most natural things in life because it was a part of God’s original design. Death, on the other hand, came only as a result of sin, which wasn’t in God’s perfect plan for humanity. God created us to live.

  18. Sarah

    Hey Rachel, first off I’d like to say that I’m really sorry for your loss. I’m pretty close to my grandpa and would feel really sad if he were to die.

    Thank you so much for your article and all the great advice on how to write grief. I have endured a lot of grief over the years from people leaving my life (or me having to leave theirs) and from feeling abandoned. However, from that pain, I have been trying to take my personal experiences and add them to my different books. Making lemonade from life’s lemons! I can see that you have done that exact thing here and I just wanted to thank you for that.

    God Bless you, and keep you, despite and through all of life’s many trials.

    • Rachel Evans

      Thank you!

      I’m sorry you’ve had to go through that. But I’m glad that you’re using the lemons to make lemonade!

  19. Elixa Parr

    GAH YES!! Thank you!

    • Rachel Evans

      You’re welcome!

  20. Joelle Stone

    Wow, that was one of the best articles I’ve ever read. And, like a couple other people, I was shocked when I saw that you were only fourteen (to be honest, I was expecting a college student or older to have written this)! I’m 14 too (will be 15 soon), and it was almost more encouraging to see a young person being published than reading the article itself! I’ve been questioning whether or not a person as young as I am can really do stuff, and you just proved me wrong. *High fives* So thank you!
    Also, great article. I was comparing my main character’s grief and grief I plan to write in the future the entire way through, and it was so helpful! So keep up the good work. 😉


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