Ever heard of the grief cycle? Most of us have, and all of us have experienced it.

According to Kubler-Ross, there are five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Formerly, the thought was that we cycle through these feelings one after the other, blending or fading into each other.

As people who have experienced grief, we know better. Sometimes these feelings are out of order or happen simultaneously. We can accept the loss, then be angry about it. Or we can be depressed and then bargain. A lot of times we’re angry and depressed at the same time.

Grief or loss isn’t just about losing a person because of death, it also applies to the loss or change of expectations or wants. Anyone with children can see the grief emotions pass over their faces when told ‘no’ about something.

Here’s a recent example: my son and I were signed up for a mountain bike race and were pretty excited about it. I’d been training hard for months and he was looking forward to riding bikes with kids his age. We were set to leave Friday morning first thing.

Thursday afternoon we had the camper packed, the fridge full, bikes on the rack. All we were waiting for was dawn to break.

During dinner that night, my boy was cranky and he had bags under his eyes. He complained about being tired.

Without asking I knew he wasn’t feeling well. And as soon as I figured that out, the grief cycle settled on my shoulders.

I started bargaining (mostly in my head), “Maybe if he doesn’t feel too bad, we can still go.” “If I get him in bed early, he’ll feel fine in the morning.”

My husband and I discussed it while experiencing denial. “He’s just tired.” “He did play hard today.” “He’s excited and nervous, he’s not sick.”

Yes, we went through the entire cycle, including anger and depression. We even briefly touched on acceptance before going back to denial and bargaining.

Friday morning, when he felt like complete crap, we finally accepted the fact that there was no way we were going to the race.

Was it a bummer? Of course!

Was it the end of the world? Hardly. Yet we went through each of those emotions as we would have if there was a true tragedy, albeit not as strongly.

So, why am I telling you all of this and what does it have to do with storytelling?

Our characters need to go through this cycle as well.

If we go back to the inciting incident, a requirement of story, we’ll see that this event causes an unmet expectation, or the character is forced to do something. Now the character can’t to do the thing they wanted to, namely stay the same.

Which means, they shouldn’t just accept it first off. They should go through a few of the grief emotions for the most tension, conflict, and realism.

I encourage you to use the grief cycle for major turning points or disappointments your character experiences. Try to overlap, blend, and let your character be confused. We all tend to get confused when experiencing several emotions at once, so it’s realistic to have them do the same.

We want to make an emotional impact on our readers, so our characters should have experiences similar to our own. The best way to do that is to give them emotions, and there’s nothing more universal than grief.

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