10 Stories For the 5 Stages of Grief
If you’re in denial, angry, bargaining, depressed, or accepting— we’ve got a story for that.
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The five stages of grief, also known as the Kübler-Ross model, were proposed by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 to describe the process terminally ill patients go through when confronting their own death. Since then, this rubric has been applied more often to other kinds of grief: the deaths of loved ones, break-ups, and yes, terrifying outcomes of presidential elections.
By their very nature, the five stages of grief describe innate human coping mechanisms. If a key ingredient of a story is simply putting a character in peril, it’s no surprise that short fiction is full of characters making their way through this spectrum.
To help you cope with whatever you’re dealing with, we’ve unlocked 10 stories — two for each stage — from our Recommended Reading archives for a limited time only. For just $5 a month, members of Electric Literature get access to the complete Recommended Reading archives of over 245 stories — and year-round open submissions. Membership is tax-deductible, helps us pay writers, and keeps all of our new content free. So if you like what you’ve read, please join today!
A Lick of Night by Max Porter, recommended by Jesse Ball
This Dylan Thomas Prize-winning debut from British author Max Porter, tells the story of a father and widower in denial of the fact that his wife is truly gone. His grief takes the form of a larger-than-life crow that haunts his mind, dreams, and home, depicted in writing that is somewhere between poetry and prose.
My Last Story by Janet Frame, recommended by Etgar Keret
We can deny anything — even our own talent. Janet Frame died in 2004 and was one of New Zealand’s most distinguished authors, having received every literary award the country offers. Her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories, won the prestigious Hubert Church Award, convincing her doctors not to carry out a scheduled lobotomy. Thank goodness for that, and thank goodness “My Last Story” did not fulfill its title, because, as Etgar Keret writes in his introduction, her stories “remove the insoluble question of the nature of creativity from its permanent blind spot and place it front and center.”
McGlue, by Ottessa Moshfegh, recommended by Fence Books
In the Booker Prize-nominated author’s debut novella, the title character is an angry and abject sailor who inflicts cruelty on both his shipmates and himself. In this excerpt, he wakes below deck too drunk to know where he is, and whether or not he has killed a man, and if that man is (was?) also his best friend. But in Moshfegh’s hands, McGlue, like so many of her vivid creations, emerges as a character who’s terrible actions become entirely understandable.
La Moretta by Maggie Shipstead, recommended by Change-Rae Lee
In this chilling story by Maggie Shipstead, a husband recalls a trip he took with his wife across Europe, and a mysterious, violent incident that occurred. Chang-Rae Lee writes that the Dylan Thomas Prize-winning author’s “La Moretta” is, “as the title suggests, a dark tale, the sort which I think gives most people a special delight.”
Man V. Nature by Diane Cook, recommended by Electric Literature
In Diane Cook’s story, three friends become stranded on a lake that might as well be an ocean — a premise that almost seems like a metaphor for bargaining. Their desperate situation tests their relationships and presents opportunities for damaging honesty. From fighting for the last piece of jerky, to proclaiming affairs with the others’ wives, Cooks characters seem to believe that one-upmanship will make them immortal.
Blackass, by A. Igoni Barrett, recommended by Chinelo Okparanta
Okparanta, acclaimed author of Under the Udala Trees, describes the novel from which this excerpt comes as a retelling of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: “A young man wakes up to the realization that he is no longer who he once was, but has become a different kind of ‘being.’ In Barrett’s version, the young man goes to bed a black man and wakes up white.” When Furo’s skin color-changes, he must renegotiate a city and relationships with which he was once intimately familiar, but has now become foreign.
Recovery by Helen DeWitt, recommended by Electric Literature
Depression has a way of cultivating strange habits. In this dark and funny story, Scott, an isolated former addict, believes that buying cheese in bulk has the power to improve his life because it precludes the daily battle of buying more cheese. He applies this line thinking to all aspects of his new outlook. The story spotlights subtle truths about coping, and perhaps inadvertently, one that many of us have known at one stage or another: eating a lot of cheese is central to recovery.
Birds in the Mouth Samanta Schweblin, recommended by PEN America
Samanta Schweblin, whose first novel Fever Dream was recently published, gives us another story about coping through eating, but with an even bigger twist. The reclusive and depressive daughter of a divorced father has taken to only eating live birds. In a test of his love — and the limitations of what love should look like — he must decide whether or not to indulge her disturbing habit.
A Faded Sense by Dina Nayeri, recommended by Electric Literature
Dina Nayeri’s captivating narrative follows Sara through love, sex, and dates she goes on “to calm [her] panicky friends, but really just for the stories.” A childhood injury has left her hands burned and covered in thick scar-tissue, and Sara must deal with how diminished sense of touch affects her experience of physical love. She knows the key to transcending her limitations must be acceptance, by others of her, and by herself.
A Great Deserted Landscape by Kjell Askildsen, recommended by Dalkey Archive Press
In this story from the Norwegian short story master Askildsen, a man has been widowed after his wife died in a tragic car crash. But sympathy is far from our first reaction to the character, who is narrating the story. Get ready to be inside the head of a man Becky McMullan of Dalkey Archive describes as, “a brother, a husband, a possible murderer, an incestuously minded creep, a self-centered jerk,” who is alarmingly well-adjusted to his circumstances.