Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Five Stages of (Writing) Grief

by Dina L. Sleiman

 Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.

When I signed up for this post I thought I’d write something smart and helpful about writing a great novel. But quite frankly, I’m just not in the mood. True confession time. I’ve actually been pretty bummed out about writing lately.

On Friday some bad news I’d received a few weeks ago finally hit me, and I spent about two hours crying. (Which I hate doing because I’m loud and pathetic and not very pretty when I cry.) Now this book is not necessarily “dead” yet. I’m working on a revision which might make a difference. And even if it doesn’t, the novel might work for later in my career. Nonetheless, my initial high hopes for the original version have been laid to rest.

For writers, our novels are like children. We love and cherish each one. And it can be devastating to see one perish on any level. So why did it take me weeks to give into my crying fit? I think I was working through the five stages of grief (not to be mistaken with the seven stages that didn’t seem to quite fit my way of dealing with things.)

The five stages of grief were initially formulated for people dealing with terminal illness, but over time have been expanded to apply to any form of catastrophic loss. And they certainly applied to my experience with this book.

When I first informed the Inkies about this bad news I was in denial. “It’s no big deal. I’ll get it fixed. I just need to take out some of the grittier historical aspects. I don’t mind that at all.”

Then I went through a period of anger, which I won’t go into great detail about because it does not necessarily speak well of me, although it’s a normal stage. Suffice to say, at least I had the wisdom only to vent to a very few friends, and only one at a time.

And I think my anger stage kind of overlapped with my bargaining stage because all along I kept working on that new version which I hoped would work out. I changed everything I possibly could without having the entire plot fall apart. Anything to keep from having to go back to the drawing board and start over with a new idea.

Now I tend to get stuck in the anger or the bargaining stage. Or in a loop between the two. I’ll just stay mad because mad feels safe. I’m in control. And I’ll keep fighting and bargaining until I somehow make it work. Since, after all, this is a novel we’re talking about, not a terminal illness. And I tend to do this in life in general.

Funny thing is, my fiery red-headed heroine of said novel, Constance Cavendish, likes to hold onto her anger as well. We have a lot in common in that area. But she learned a lesson or two about it in the book.

Last year I learned an important lesson too. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. When you’re angry, no one’s going to comfort you. Not even God seems able to break through and do that. You have to let yourself experience stage four. You have to mourn before you can truly start to heal and get better. You have to mourn before people will rally around you and encourage you. The fourth stage is actually called depression, and while we can’t let ourselves get mired there for too long, we have to let ourselves feel it. A time to mourn and a time to dance. One of my favorite scriptures, although you know I prefer the boogie on down aspect.

The final stage is acceptance. In my case acceptance says, this novel may or may not work out. It may work out later rather than sooner. And if so, I need to figure out a way to be okay with that. And if so, I need to come up with another idea and keep trying.

I realize in the greater scheme of things having a book rejected is not a major life crisis. But it sure feels that way. And sometimes we as writers need to grieve in order to move on.

How do you deal with grief, writing or otherwise? Any tips for getting through it?


Dina Sleiman writes lyrical stories that dance with light. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. She was the Overall Winner in the 2009 Touched by Love contest for unpublished authors. Her first novel, Dance of the Dandelion with Whitefire Publishing has just released. She has recently become an acquisitions editor for WhiteFire as well. Join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace. For more info visit her at


  1. Dina, I know I've gone through those stages of writing grief. About two weeks ago, Tamela mentioned a writing op to me, asked if I had anything to fit But after looking at my story and studying what the editors were looking for, I knew in my spirit that I wasn't a match. Not just my story but me as a writer.

    So I happily wrote Tamela a note back saying that I was going to take a pass on the opportunity.

    But then a few other things occured and I began doubting my decision. Hey, I figure if an editor says "I want this," then I'm gonn do my best to write "this." I wondered if I was letting fear stop me from taking a chance, doing somethign different. Especially after another friend told me she was putting somethign together for the editor.

    Amid the chaos of "should I, should I," I heard the stillness of "This isn't for you, let it go."

    I did. I'm content in passing on that writing opportunity.

    So why is it I can be content with that, yet not quite get to that acceptance point on other manuscripts that I'm supposed to let go? *sigh*

    Great post! I bet it's goign to marinate on my mind today.

  2. I think the hardest thing is writing a full novel and then letting it go. I had determined that I only wanted to work on proposals from now on. But between the fact that I loved this story idea so much and could see it so clearly in my mind, and the fact that my agent wanted to see the full, I buckled down and did it. That's a big part of what is painful for me here.

  3. I just lost a comment which I thought was incredibly wise

    Duh. Its gone now.

    I think part of your disappointment is that you wrote more to market ...and it was well done ...and darnit many wonderful stories don't get to print.

    But the time and effort were all to the good and I have a feeling that wonderful story will sell at the best time. I don't represent the typical market but I probably would have loved what you removed as well!

  4. Glad you shared these stages of grief, Dina. I think everyone needs to know them and be prepared to deal with them, whether it's about writing or a job or a relationship... too many people get stuck, or try to rush through one stage or the other, instead of letting the healing process occur. Funny, we don't think of grieving as healing, but it really is, isn't it?

    While my DH was home for the last two months (glory to God he started work Monday) he went through all of these stages, not just over the loss of his job, but over leaving the pastorate and other things he simply hadn't slowed down long enough to process. It was hard to watch, but he said last week he finally feels "healed" and knows he needed that time to recover.

  5. I can sooo relate to this post. We writers spend uncountable hours on our manuscripts, and setting them aside is a true loss that needs to be grieved.

    Takes me back to my determination to keep an eternal perspective on the circumstances in my life. To be able to say, "This is yours, God. Do with it what You will."

    Thanks for the post, Dina.

  6. I figured this would hit home for everyone. For the record, the seven stages starts with initial pain. Then denial, etc... So I imagine for some personalities there's an initial brief sadness early in the process. I tend to skip that one.

  7. Dina, i know what you mean about writing only proposals. I have a manuscript with a full request on it, but I'm uninspired to write the story. Plus all these other new ideas are consuming my attention.

    Still, wisdom says finish the manuscript.

  8. Oh, as far as the stages of actual grief . . . my oh my. I didn't go through all five -- or seven -- after my mother-in-law died. But I did experience several.

    Every so often I think, "it still doesn't seem real that she's gone, that she's not here for us to talk to and be with." Surely this is only a dream. No matter how much I know her death is real, it doesn't quite seem real.

    The feeling of "unrightness" is so difficult to explain.

  9. How about another response--fear. There's something about crossing the threshold into being published that makes future rejection harder to face. I'm working on something now that could either be a great opportunity or a colossal failure. And even the thought of future rejection is causing me significant stress.

    Nice to know there are others to share with. :)

  10. Great post, Dina. It seems the farther ahead we get, the more decisions we have. And that brings on the stress. We started this path so we could just write, but now we spend so much time dealing with the emotions and effects of the process, by the time everything's taken care of, we're too drained to enter that state of awed imagination.

    However... I wouldn't trade this for any other job.

    Anita Mae.

  11. You've definitely got to love writing for all of this torture to be worthwhile. Lol.

  12. I tend to experience sadness and grief in relation to writing disappointments, rather than anger. I go through periods of feeling like a loser, then I have to work through the depression. If I do experience a stage of anger, I don't really recognize it.
    That said, I do feel anger in other areas that I need to deal with, and I especially love this statement of yours, Dina: When you’re angry, no one’s going to comfort you. Not even God seems able to break through and do that.

    Wow. Hit me upside the head, why don't you. ;-) I should have figured this out a long time ago. Thank you, Dina.

  13. It only took me 40 years, Suzie :)

  14. I think one must HAVE to write if he is a writer. There is no other explanation for so many people spending so much time and effort on something so entirely frustrating.

    But evidently we must. :)

    I have one literary "child" that I'm determined to somehow fix and make publishable, but I don't have a clue about what to do with it. It's in a genre that doesn't seem to go out of style and I've been working on three other genres that I actually have an audience for, so I'm not actively working on my rejected "child," but I stubbornly refuse to abandon it.

    I guess I'm in denial (not the river in Egypt).


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