Yesterday marked the two-year anniversary of my aunt's death. My parents went to Arlington Cemetery to pay her a visit, placing flowers on her grave as well as plastic butterflies (they were her favorite). Thinking about her and the life she lived even though it was cut short by cancer got me thinking about death in books. I find it to be a very popular theme as well as plot turner. Death has a way of propelling a character towards the desired path of a story.
Aside from the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, I find that characters usually go down two paths after experiencing death or loss. 1) The character gains strength from it, using the death to push them towards resolving their conflicts or 2) The character is forever changed by it, never ending the same way they began and death becomes the reason they are who they are. Let's look at two examples.
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowlings would be the first to tell you that the main theme in Harry Potter is death. The series starts just after the death of Harry's parents and ends with that of Voldemort's. In fact, it's through the death of Harry's mother that Harry survived the attack on him as a baby. Her willingness to die in order to save Harry left a lasting impression: love. It was this that Voldemort couldn't fight.
Throughout the series Harry encounters death and the loss of family and friends: Cedric Diggory, Sirius Black, Dumbledore, and more. However, through these deaths Harry finds in himself the strength he needs to fight Voldemort. Through the loss of losing those he loved, he finds the courage he needs to do what has to be done and thereby defeating Voldemort once and for all.
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
When Cassie dies, Lia not only has to deal with her eating disorder, but with her guilt as well. As the spirit of Cassie haunts her, Lia first falls deeper and deeper into despair by not only continuing counting calories but also by cutting herself. Cassie wants Lia to join her and even though Lia's words say no her actions scream yes, until she finds herself in the same hotel room where Cassie died. The hotel room where Cassie called Lia 33 times and Lia never picked up.
Lia grapples with the death of her friend, first allowing it to consume her, dragging her down, but when she finally falls she realizes that what she wants is to live. Cassie's death propels her to choose life and therefore she starts to take the steps she needs to heal. She starts to become a different person.
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