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Writing About Death And Grief In Romance

No genre is as known for its feel-good nature as romance. The promise of a happy ending has made readers fall in love with stories of characters falling for each other. The variety of subgenres presents options for every reader out there, no matter if they yearn for swashbuckling adventures on the high seas, mingling among the ton, settling in for some small-town coziness, or blazing through the unknown lawlessness of the west.

In recent years especially, romance has become more diverse than ever. We're seeing POC casts, neurodivergent leads or those with chronic illnesses and disabilities, queer rep, and bodies of all sizes in the spotlight without their role being the comic relief.


It's wonderful and has been a long time coming.


Romance, it's fair to say, really does have it all.


But there is one thing I haven't seen written about often within the genre: death.


The warm spirits expected of romance can be immiscible with graver topics, mixing about as well as water and oil. Serious conversations can be jarring or disruptive in a story that is otherwise lighthearted.


That isn't to say they cannot be woven into the narrative. However, it can require a little more tact than if you were writing a horror or mystery novel.


Death is one theme you'll find quite a bit in my historical romances. Several of my characters are mourning the loss of a loved one, and that often impacts their arcs. It is a very real thing that can be hard to talk about and, on some days, difficult to write about. However, is important to do so, and fiction can soften the blow.


I love writing moments of happiness and tenderness, with heaps of sarcasm and dashes of humor, but also weave in somber moments and melancholy.


Although writing about death in romance feels like something that just happened in my case and not something I set out to do at first, there are a few identifiable reasons I continue to do so.


But first...


Cautions And Caveats

In posts like these, I typically start out with how to go about the topic in question before any words of caution.


I'm changing the order this time around. It makes sense to review some of the ways writing about death is different in romance than it is in other genres and means of handling it.


Many romance readers love the genre for the warm-and-fuzzies, comparable to snuggling up in a cozy sweater and a hot drink of choice. While it can have a range of suspenseful moments, it's not intended to have readers on the edge of their seats.


For the most part, death in romance needs to be handled with an element of subtlety.


What do I mean by this?


There are plenty of things to have in mind when writing a character death (which I covered more extensively in this post and in this one), including where and when it occurs. While this can certainly refer to location and at which point in the story, it also has to do with where and when it falls in relation to the reader. Does it happen before or during the events of the plot, and is it something the reader bears witness to alongside the characters?


In romance, deaths are typically an outside occurrence. They either happen prior to the first chapter or off-screen, so to speak.


There are only a handful of instances I can think of where there has been a death on the page in a romance I've read, and the deceased characters in each succumbed to an illness or age.


I've only ever written one character death on the page so far, and I may end up scaling it back in future drafts.


Violent attacks and grisly details are likely going to be out of place in a romance novel.


Consider your audience. Romance has abundant chiseled jawlines and sculpted, occasionally bare-chested abs, comely features and alluring gazes from fine eyes. Descriptions of hands brushing against one another, lips but a hairsbreadth apart.


Imagine going into a book expecting the above and instead encountering a bloody crime scene. It would be an immense shock, and likely not the good kind.


It's better to leave the gore and the grotesque for writers of horror and similar.


Instead, I recommend emphasizing the emotions of the moment. Romance is built around feelings such as love, warmth, and pleasure, so focusing on the feelings about the death more than describing the sights can make it less overwhelming.


Along with the where and how, there's also the need to determine who.


The aforementioned posts on writing character deaths go into more detail on deciding whose doom to seal, but there is one rule when it comes to writing romance:


Do NOT kill the love interests.


Romance readers expect a happy ending. Whether this means the characters are at last starting a serious relationship, reconciling and getting back together, an engagement, marriage, or an epilogue flashing forward a few years showing a white picket fence with a dog in the yard and two kids—whatever their version of happy ending looks like—readers need to see the characters they've been rooting for end up together.


If one of the love interests dies, that's gonna put a damper on things.


The whole point of romance is characters fall in love and live happily ever after.


As far as killing other characters go, do what you will (but use discretion when it comes to romance novels).



With death being rarely found in romance and needing to be handled with care, why is it so prevalent in my writing?


As I said at the top of the post, it was not something I initially aimed to do. But there are some reasons that death and grief remain an enduring thread across my writing.


Conflict

Death is often seen at the end of stories. The big bad being slain in a fight with the hero. The protagonist passing away in their sleep decades after the dust has settled. A secondary character sacrificing themselves so the hero can finish the job.


It can just as often be the source of the story's conflict and work surprisingly well with quite a few romance tropes.


A second-chance romance may have the loss of Character A's spouse several years prior causing hesitation in starting a relationship with Character B. Historical works often involve marriages of convenience to secure one's inheritace or in the wake of a female character's family losing the estate after their eldest male cousin inherits it.


Bereavement can also be worked into character or relationship progression.


In one of my WIPs, Bound to the Heart, Eve Chavasse is grieving the deaths of her brother and her father. The losses and the intricacies of inheritances in the Regency Era heighten her mother's worries about the future, prompting their traveling to London for the Season to find a suitable husband for Eve.


All Eve wants is to marry for love, something her mother is certain cannot be afforded in their new circumstances.


Mrs. Chavasse buries her grief and expects Eve to do the same. There are a few points in the narration in which Eve's thoughts stray to what her brother would think of something, only to be cut off as she tamps those ruminations down once more.


Zach is the only person who give her space to feel that grief she's carrying. It's just one of the ways he encourages her to be all that she is when so many around her press her into a box.


Eventually, there is more mention of Percival and Eve gradually, at last, begins to heal.


In a romance, the focus should not be on grief. However, it can add additional layers when used as a subplot or theme woven into the larger narrative.


Connection Through Commonality

One aspect that makes any story special is the connection readers share with the characters. We may become attached to characters who we share traits with or are going through similar circumstances.


Death is one of the few constants in life. We are all affected by it.


Yet it's a topic often avoided.


If it's something not often discussed, why write about it?


For me, I think it's about that desire for connection. Knowing that as a reader, or as a writer, I am not alone in my feelings.


Losing my father when I was eighteen was the hardest thing I've had to endure, and it was something I felt totally lost in. I had lost a parent before my mother had, as both of my maternal grandparents were still alive at the time. I was the first in my friend group to experience it, and none of them knew how to respond apart from condolences and checking in with me periodically; to be fair, I didn't know what I needed.


It was foreign.


Reading was a distraction in that time, but also helped me recognize that my feelings were perfectly valid. Finding characters at various stages of grief assured me that everything I was experiencing was normal and, more importantly, that I would be okay one day.


There is solace in shared bereavement, even if those we share it with are not of flesh and blood.


Normalizing Nonlinear Grief

Just as important as I feel it is to portray death in my stories, I also want to show that there is no single way of feeling in the aftermath.


We often hear about the five stages of grief, which are as follows:

  1. Denial

  2. Anger

  3. Bargaining

  4. Depression

  5. Acceptance

While these phases are emotions we face in mourning, it's not as straightforward. The way the five stages of grief are laid out can come across as a checklist or step-by-step guide, and that has caused difficulties for me in the past.


There would be days I would feel like I had slipped back, for example being in the depression stage and growing angry over the loss rather than progressing to the next step of acceptance. I'd then be upset with myself because I wasn't doing it "right."


As time has gone on, I've come to view this template differently and instead use it as a means to identify what I am feeling. When the holiday season approaches, I find myself in the depression stage of grief. Knowing this, I am better able to cope with it.


The way the five stages of grief are presented also have structure to them. However, it's not like that in reality.


We may feel the above things, or we may not. They may not last equal lengths of time or be experienced in the same order.


Additionally, despite being universal, grief is unique to each of us. Everyone feels things differently, and the same person may feel differently from one loss to the next.


Bruce might turn to his faith for comfort, whereas Jackie loses trust in theirs. David could accept the death of Monica quicker than Bruce does but remain angered over the loss of Violet for some time.


The numerous variables involved create an individualistic nature to grief, and that is something I wish I understood much sooner.


I think that is why I bring it into my writing. There are similarities in how we experience grief, but nothing is concrete.


Going beyond the five stages and exploring the nonlinear nature of grief in a way that makes these emotions more approachable for readers—more human—I would not be opposed to that being the mark of my books.




Death is a peculiar thing of which we only know a little. We don't know what happens to the deceased afterward, save for what forensics and other sciences can tell us.


For the living, grief is something we continue to learn about. The way it manifests and affects us is ever-changing, and we tend to discover things about ourselves along the way.


Writing about death can be as challenging as it is to talk of it, but I've found it is not only helpful to have that space on the page to explore my own thoughts, but to create one for readers experiencing emotions and situations like those of my characters.


Romance may be the genre of love and good feelings, but it can also be a place for reflection on life—and the wake of its end.



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