Think Before Recommending Books and Movies after a Death

I recently finished a book* several friends and associates recommended during the first two years after my husband died. Recommended might be too mild a word; they practically insisted I read it, yet something held me back, and I’m glad I waited until now, nearly seven years into widowhood.

I can almost imagine why they recommended this compelling work of historical fiction. Its vivid language, with three-dimensional settings and characters, made me feel I’d traveled into another era and community. It was a great read, yes — but it was a terrible recommendation for someone actively grieving.

“What were they thinking?” I asked myself — aloud — at least a dozen times over the three days while I read it. “What were they thinking?” At times I even exclaimed in all-caps volume that startled my dog. “WHAT were they THINKING?”

When I reached the end of the book, I sobbed. I’d shed a few tears within other pages, but these “The End” tears accompanied long, high, keening sobs like I haven’t released in years. Yes, years.

I can only begin to imagine how traumatized I’d have felt if I’d read it back then, while I was yet adjusting to widowhood and only beginning to develop ways of coping with my grief.

In the days after I finished reading, I couldn’t stop wondering: What were my friends thinking when they recommended this beautiful, breathtaking, heart-filled, heartbreaking story to me as a new, actively grieving widow?

A) Maybe the story of this character losing a loved one and falling utterly apart in the process will make my friend feel better about falling off the deep end herself. INCORRECT.

B) Maybe the story of this character’s tragic loss(es) will make my friend feel like her loss isn’t so bad after all. INCORRECT.

C) Maybe the realistic bereavement in this book will make my friend forget all about her own mourning. INCORRECT.

D) Maybe if my friend cries over these characters she’ll stop crying over her husband dying. INCORRECT.

Maybe they just weren’t thinking.

Almost as elusive as the answer to that question I asked (and re-asked) is the answer to a quieter, more introspective question: What was I thinking? Why didn’t I read it when they recommended it to me? Why did I wait?

I knew these nonfiction books focused on grief when I chose to read them, and I therefore found them cathartic — especially Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s “On Loss and Living Onward” and “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Many people find reading next to impossible while mourning. Grief distracts them too much for the concentration reading requires.

But reading anesthetized my distraught nerves and temporarily muted my pain. I read 286 books of fiction and nonfiction (including plenty of titles about grief) in those same first two years after my husband died. While my head lived in the pages of other writers’ stories, I laughed, cringed, empathized, and feared for them. Reading set aside my distress long enough for my body and brain to recharge.

Reading (and writing) while grieving saved my sanity. Sometimes, mindlessly watching TV shows or movies did too. But those offered troubling issues too.

About a month after my husband died, some of my daughter’s friends, meaning well, invited her to join them for a movie night. That was a fantastic gesture, and she’d have gladly attended to distract herself from her grief over her father’s death … if they hadn’t chosen The Lion King, in which the young protagonist is traumatized by the death of his father. (Many Disney films present a minefield of grief triggers for children, of all ages, who’ve lost parents.)

Watching Monk because I knew the main character suffered from the loss of his spouse (and because he also suffered from OCD, as did my late husband) let me channel my bereaved emotions in a metered, measured way. Watching a show (or reading a book) in which I didn’t expect to face a character suddenly mourning a loved one threw me into shoulder-shaking, gut-churning paroxysms of grief.

Fiction in literature and film can offer cathartic release of emotions, particularly when the grieving person seeks it out. Sometimes, a good cry over a fictional character might momentarily lighten one’s own bereavement. But it can trigger cascading meltdowns in mourners, especially if unexpected similarities smack them in surprise.

When inviting grieving friends to join you in a movie or urging them to read a book you enjoyed — and you should do these things as a way to offer support — please think carefully about the content. If characters die or suffer other significant loss, choose something else to share, or alert your friends ahead of time so they can decide whether to proceed.


*It’s not the author’s fault this book pushed so many of my personal grief-trigger buttons. And I don’t want to make any of my friends who recommended this particular book feel badly for recommending it so many years ago. For these reasons, I’ve chosen not to name the title or writer here.





Forget about the “Stages of Grief,” but Remember the “Symptoms”

As a writer and editor of both fiction and nonfiction (and as a widow who has networked with thousands of other bereaved individuals) I cheered — and jeered — over one trade article’s treatment of grief.

I applaud Danny Manus for writing “Notes from the Margin: Five Stages of Grief for Your Character,” in which he urges fellow writers to infuse their characters with “fully fleshed out” emotional reactions by having “them go through the Five Stages of Grief.” Too many writers (and friends of the bereaved) appear unaware of the the life-altering impact of loss (whether that loss relates to health, relationships, employment, or other serious changes — including, of course, death).

Manus’s article and attached illustration might provide an initial working framework, but as one among many grief-related writers, I must disagree with the shape of the ribbon as well as the opening lines of the article!

The true

Although the loops acknowledge there are turns along the way to “recovering” from grief’s impediment, I disagree with the shape and “stages” of this image linked with Manus’s article at

“When something traumatic happens, it’s said that we all experience the five stages of grief. So as your character goes on their journey – which should be full of trauma, drama, action and emotion – it stands to reason that they should go through the same steps.” – See more at:

I groaned — aloud — as I saw the lovely, neatly looped ribbon illustration and read the words “the five stages” and “the same steps.” 

Not again!

REAL people experience REAL grief in messier, less linear, and far less predictable ways. Every loss is different, because every relationship is unique. Realistic fictional (and nonfictional) characters should be presented accordingly — and living, (barely) breathing, grieving friends should never, ever, ever be pigeonholed into expectations of predictable, orderly patterns of grieving through “stages.”

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross herself explained that her “Five Stages” of grief applied specifically to people’s confrontations with their own impending mortality — and that they did not always line up in this neat little order. As another Elizabeth put it (though regarding the admittedly different topic of pirate laws), “They’re more like guidelines.”

A more accurate “ribbon” would show these “stages” appearing at uneven intervals and with skipped and irregular repetitions. Instead of a loosely looped U shape, the ribbon would be knotted in places, torn and shredded, and positioned in a wobbly spiral like a warped, stretched, squished Slinky.

For me (and for most of those I know who have lost loved ones, the so-called stages look more like the figure on the right:

Grief is messy. The “stages” look more like the figure on the right. (Image found at

Consider realistically portrayed grieving television characters. Let’s look at the early guest appearances by the divorced Lorna/Lana Gardner (played by Jean Smart) on Frasier and the eight seasons of widowed Adrian Monk (played by Tony Shalhoub) on Monk.

When former high school classmate Lorna/Lana is reintroduced to Frasier, she thought she was already “over” her divorce. She’d “moved on” and was happy with her life — until her ex remarried on her birthday. The writers successfully (and comically) revealed her ups and downs along spirals of “stages” as new life circumstances forced her character to revisit past emotional reactions in her present life. In subsequent episodes, Lorna (by then called Lana) continued to carry her “anger” and “bargaining” stages with her (as parts of her personality that crept in) even as she moved along in her “meaningful life.”

In the series “Monk,” the title character was beautifully, tragically flawed. His lifetime of coping with OCD was thrown into non-coping chaos after his wife’s murder. Even though Adrian Monk managed (with heavy support from understanding though sometimes impatient and exasperated friends) to “return to meaningful life,” that life was always in flux with the “earlier stages.”

When also-widowed Natalie Teeger (played by Traylor Howard) becomes Mr. Monk’s assistant in the third season, her character has “already” returned more fully “to meaningful life” than her employer, yet throughout the remaining seasons there are moments the writers reveal the ongoing impact of grief in its recurring stages. For Adrian, the Slinky of stages remains tightly compressed as he moves forward; for Natalie the Slinky is stretched nearly — but not quite — into a straighter line.

Grieving is messy and complicated and non-linear. If you’re writing about characters whose losses have impacted their “normal” lives, be aware that realistic portrayals reflect the chaos of returning, churning emotions they thought they’d already put in the past.

If you’re supporting friends who’re mourning, please, please, please don’t tell them, “You may be depressed now, but as soon as you go through bargaining you’ll be ready for acceptance and then everything will be okay.” (Trust me on this — I’ve heard it. It doesn’t help, and unless you can bring back the dead, to the recently bereaved that will never be okay.) For many, grieving a loved one is the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and sanitizing it into simple stages implies it should be easier. They will not appreciate you minimizing their emotions.

If you’re grieving a loss of your own, I’m sorry. It hurts. Sometimes all you’ll see are the suffocating scribbles in the “My experience” illustration above. It won’t always be this hard, and in time the dark lines will fade as you work your way forward, but for now, be patient with yourself. Please.