Do Grief and Loss Belong in YA Fiction?

This is a blog I originally wrote for the lovely River Ram Press. If you like reading quality fiction and bloggery, make sure you check them out! So, what do you think? Should YA fiction deal with these topics?

Just last night, I watched a television show where a woman gets in a freak bus accident after leaving her house to help her drunk friend get home safely. The friend makes it out with a few bumps and bruises, but no lasting damage. The woman dies. As Kurt Vonnegut endlessly reiterates throughout the pages of Slaughterhouse Five, ‘So it goes.’

Death is part of life, and the mystery of it has been toyed with throughout centuries of fiction. In thousands of books and through the eyes of millions of characters, it has been approached with fear, anger, terror, respect, apathy, humor, excitement, and complacency. The one thing it cannot be is completely ignored. What author can write a realistic character that has never been touched by death? Even children, who rarely understand the full implication of death, have likely been exposed to it.

Adults have all sorts of books to help us deal with grief and the loss of a loved one, ranging from self-help to the catharsis of fiction and poetry. It has been shown time and again that watching someone else go through pain and suffering can dull the severity of our own. Why else would soap operas be so popular? But what about books geared toward young adults? If reading about a character’s journey through loss and death can help a person deal with his or her own pain, then why shouldn’t they? And since it is a rare teenager indeed who would pick up a self-help book, fiction seems the most accessible avenue to reach them through.

I believe that fiction for all ages should deal with the topics of death and loss, but I also believe that these topics should be dealt with in a relatable and truthful manner. For example, watching the aforementioned television show as the characters mourned the unnecessary loss of a young doctor, I grieved along with them. But at the end of the episode, it felt right. It wasn’t contrived, it wasn’t outlandish. I could turn off the television, sniff a little, and get up because yes, life is like that. Sometimes people do just go outside to get their mail and get hit by a car. Sometimes the fireman makes it home from his job safely only to have an aneurism in the driveway. Life is like that. It’s ironic, and freakish, and unsystematic, and unfair, but it is not often bizarre.

For instance, as much as I enjoyed the Harry Potter series, that was the one thought that came to me over and over again toward the end: This is bizarre. This poor boy’s parents were murdered in front of him as a child, and throughout his impressionable teenage years he’s now seen countless of his closest friends die as well, all because of a war he started. Forget Hogwarts; he should be in an asylum. While one could argue that he was in a war and wars cause countless deaths, I was left wondering, what is the point? In this series, for this character and this audience, what is the point?

Fiction emulates life, yes, but unlike life, fiction shouldn’t be random. Deaths of characters should be planned just as carefully as the lives of characters. Grief should be doled out in just the right measurement to get one’s protagonist to the decisions he needs to make for the story to proceed. That is one of the author’s many tasks. The topics of grief and loss have a place in Young Adult fiction, absolutely. They should be no more skirted around than sex, addiction, peer pressure, money, depression, or any other issue that faces teenagers and adults alike. Ignoring a topic never makes it go away, and usually makes it that much more interesting. But I would argue that all of these topics should be handled with the integrity that they deserve. Reading a story of loss that grossly undermines its pain, or exaggeratedly caricaturizes it only cheapens any actual grief the reader might be facing.

At the end of the day, fiction must be written honestly or it cannot be taken seriously. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are that put the character through the death of someone close. Perhaps they are enormously unlikely or filled with uncanny coincidences. What YA fiction readers search for as they read is the same thing that any reader searches for—or that any person approaches any art form searching for, after all—and that is truth.

Once a writer has landed on truth, the work is unstoppable.