My father died when I was 10. His death impacted my mom, my brother, and myself in ways we never could have imagined. But the reality of our new status quo, combined with the love, the fear, and the anguish over such a HUGE loss helped bring us back together again, though it took many years.
Losing one's parent can be devastating, especially for young children or teens. I've spent more time than I'd like to admit wondering two things:
- Which would be easier? Losing my father when I was younger, and therefore had less memories to replay in my head, or losing him later, thus giving us more years to know each other?
- Which is worse? Losing him quickly, like in an accident, or having some idea that the end will eventually come, such as with sickness?
Here's the truth: it doesn't matter because when you're done emotionally killing yourself over the issue, you're left with no resolution. None. Zero. No answer will ever be the right one and no answer will bring them back.
But that's my point. As someone who lost a parent, I asked myself those questions. I still do. I denied that he was even dead. I told myself for YEARS he was still alive, held against his will in a foreign country. It was easier to believe someone took him instead of accepting that mutated cells could flatten the mountain of a man who was my father. At 6 feet, 6 inches tall with salt and pepper hair, blue eyes, and a thick New York City accent with the moxie to match--my dad could be the most intimidating person one minute and have you laughing the next. There are so many things I wish people could know about him, but I'm trekking down this emotional road for a different purpose.
As a MG writer, I understand how much easier a story can be without parents around to "get in the way." Setting your character alone against the world is a tried and true method for most "coming of age" stories. I get it and I use this concept myself.
However, I recently read a story where the author killed the main character's entire family. Mom, dad, and sister, all gone. At this point, I stopped reading for a day because I needed to distance myself from the story. It felt like these deaths were used as a plot point to motivate the MC to make the next decision and weren't treated with the gravity the situation required. The author wrote in emotions every few pages, showing us the MC was still grappling with the loss, but it wasn't enough. Not for me.
If using the death of a parent in your story, take a deep breath and write true to the emotions. If you've never lost a parent, then cue up your Disney-happy-place-music, put yourself in that horrible mind set, and think about how you would feel. Write that. Or ask someone who has dealt with this. But writing that your main character buried their emotions to "deal with later" can feel false.
Instead, show us your characters acting out. Bring your readers along as your characters make deals with higher powers to reverse reality. Have us walk by their side as they make irrational decisions, push away those they love, and act out of character. Show us the tears, confusion, anger, heartbreaking sobs, denial, and most importantly, show us how your main character's life is irrevocably changed. It's okay, as the author, you can always bring your character back around, but it will make them more relatable to teens who might be facing that situation.
How about you? Do you feel one way or another about books that use a parent's death as a motivational tool?