Why Grief is a Potent Catalyst For Romance

Why Grief is a Potent Catalyst For Romance

One of the things that drew me to romance writing was my desire to explore emotions and the intricacies of interpersonal relationships.

Even when I’m reading in a different genre — be it thriller or horror — I always pay attention to those two things, whether they’re explicitly stated on the page or not.

For me, it's not just about the surface-level aspects of the story — the romance or attraction. I like to delve into the deeper, more complex layers of human interaction and emotion. In genres like thrillers or horror, this exploration of relationships and emotions adds a profound depth to the story. It's fascinating to see how high-stress situations impact the internal landscapes of the characters. People react differently when they’re under pressure. I like to explore how emotions like fear, love, trust, betrayal, and hope manifest in extreme circumstances. These aspects make characters in any genre more three-dimensional and relatable to me. This is especially true in romance, where the emotional journey is just as important, if not more so, than the physical journey.

The emotional arcs in romance novels are often steeped in a blend of desire, longing, angst and, notably, grief—a profound and universal experience that weaves through these stories, adding layers of depth and authenticity. Typically seen as the counterpoint to joy, grief can enrich a romance in very specific ways and offers  a backdrop against which the true resilience and growth of characters can be showcased.

Its multifaceted form, reveals a nuanced and genuine portrayal of love, highlighting the transformative journey of emotional maturation that characters undergo in the world I’ve created for them.

My personal experiences with grief:

My personal relationship with grief began at a very young age at the first funeral I attended was when I was around four or five years old. It was for a second or third cousin who had died by suicide. That day is etched in my memory: the church, which was big and Baptist, had a choir stand right behind the pulpit and a red carpet on the floor. The overwhelming smell of lilies made me sneeze through the entirety of the service. I remember feeling small and overwhelmed, my patent leather shoes and lace-edged bobby socks hanging over then edged the pew, the grandeur of the church, and the gravity of the occasion. The moving gospel songs were sung to send this cousin I was too young to know home.

The next time I remember experiencing that kind of grief tangentially was in the funeral scene of Imitation of Life - the 1959 version with Juanita Moore and Lana Turner. That elaborate funeral with Mahalia belting out Trouble of the World in a church drowned in lilies and white roses. The horse-drawn carriage and Sara Jane wailing about how sorry she was…that scene makes my heart clench every time I see it! The way grief and loss are portrayed in that film resonated with me, shaping my views and feelings about death and the emotions it evokes.

The deaths of my beloved Papa — my mother’s father — and my great-grandmother Leona were pivotal moments in my life. I was the eldest grandchild and these two were my first best friends. My grandfather died of cancer when I was 12 but I got to keep Grandma Green until I was 19. These losses brought grief that was profound and personal. My grandfather's passing left a void that was palpable; he had been a significant figure in my life. He was buried in a white suit and yellow tie, looking every bit the dapper, charismatic joker he’d been in life. Losing Grandma Green was like losing a piece of history, a connection to my past that was irreplaceable. Their departures from this world brought a deep sense of sorrow, but also a profound understanding of the inevitable nature of life and death.

I’ve lost other people since then, but Leona and Stanley were the most profound. My experiences with grief taught me that it's a complex, deeply personal process that varies greatly from one individual to another and even from one death to the next. It has shown me the importance of empathy and understanding in the face of loss and has given me a profound appreciation for the rituals and traditions that help us cope with the departure of loved ones. Grief, in all its forms, is an integral part of the human experience, shaping us in ways we may not fully understand. It’s also led to a lifelong examination of the ways grief of all kinds can be a catalyst for progress, growth, evolution, and love.

My favorite books about grief:

There are many, but I want to talk about two here: The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang and Back in the Day by Katrina Jackson. Both were published in the summer of 2021 (August and May), which I find interesting.

Full disclosure: Katrina Jackson is a friend of mine. While I feel my examination of this text is unbiased, I know it probably won’t be perceived that way because of our relationship. Having that said…

I will, can, and have fought about Back in the Day and its validity as a romance every time it comes up.

Katrina Jackson’s navigation of grief and the true meaning of happily ever after is handled with a delicate yet profound touch. In Back in the Day, Jackson portrays Alonzo is packing up to move in with his son Amir. It’s clear from page one that the reason for the move is the fairly recent death of his wife, whom he’s still intensely in love with. And because Jackson is a historian who loves a good duel timeline narrative, we get to flashback to when Alonzo and Ada met. Friends… this book is heartbreakingly beautiful. It grapples with loss in a way that's raw and genuine and reflects the true complexity of grieving. She skillfully balances this with warmth and hope and a deep love and respect for music…. Amazing. Ten out of ten would recommend, again and again.

Back in the Day, in my opinion, sits on the boundary between romance and women’s fiction. It has a strong romantic plotline, focusing on the relationship between Alonzo and Ada, and includes the emotional development and happy resolution characteristic of romance. It explores themes beyond the central love story, to the space where death does part these lovers and our hero is left to make sense of a lifetime of love after that love is gone.

The reception of this book, however, reminded me that romance is a genre that doesn’t like its genre conventions stretched. It doesn’t like when authors play with form and wants a very specific and limiting illustration of a happily ever after. Every time someone talks about it on any timeline, there are a lot of “feelings,” which I won’t go into here, but I will say this: every romance book is happy for now if they don’t die together.

I said what I said.

Next, I wanna dive into Helen Hoang's The Heart Principle.

I’m a huge fan of Hoang’s work, but this book really tugged at the heartstrings in a very specific way and caught quite a bit of controversy in the bookish streets. It's a story that revolves around a character who's dealing with a lot at once. Anna is already trying to swim through the heavy waves of autistic burnout at the start of the novel. She’s also receives a late in life autism diagnosis — something quite a few folks discovered during lockdown which should have made her more relatable, but I digress. This diagnosis isn't just a label for Anna; it's like suddenly all of her past struggles make sense, and she starts seeing the world through a new lens. The events that follow are compounded by the fact that she’s trying to navigate the world with this diagnosis which doesn’t make it any easier for her, like, at all. Hoang doesn't shy away from the dark sticky bits of the story here. She takes us on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance with Anna.

There are readers who love this depth of character, and I’m one of them. It’s a mature narrative and Anna's challenges are realistically portrayed. But then, there are others who missed the more straightforward romance in The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test. It's a classic case of expectation vs. reality, in my opinion. Hoang set a tone with her first two books, and when she went down a different road with The Heart Principle, it split the crowd. Some were ready for deeper narrative, applauding the authenticity and depth, while others longed for the lighter touch of the previous books. Basically, the book she wrote as not the book readers wanted. It’s a risk you take as an author. However, that doesn’t mean the story isn’t good. Because it’s fucking brilliant and that’s not up for debate here.

Again, I said what I said.

One of the things I dislike about this genre is the unwillingness to embrace the space around the romance or allow authors to play with form, or language. There is room for romances that don’t follow the beat sheet that I actually regret sharing so widely. But how was I to know that yall would take that as bible and years later refuse to accept anything else! How was I to know that exploring every emotion — not just the ones between the couple would become taboo?

There are so many emotional wounds out there, so many different human experiences that can be added to a romance to make them less formulaic and grief is one of them. It’s such a profound human experience, and it can imbue your characters with a depth of emotion that elevates them into three-dimensional and relatable figures. When a character grapples with loss, their journey through grief reveals multiple layers of their personality, showcasing their vulnerabilities, strengths, fears, and hopes. It allows readers to connect with them on a deeper level, as grief is a universal emotion that resonates across different backgrounds and experiences. This emotional complexity not only enriches the narrative but also mirrors the multifaceted nature of human beings. Characters who experience and process grief become a mirror for readers, reflecting their own struggles and triumphs in facing loss, making the story more impactful and memorable. Through their grief, characters become more than just fictional entities. They become embodiments of real human experiences, fostering a powerful connection between the story and its audience.

Anyway, I’m harping now.

The distinction between romance and women’s fiction can sometimes blur, as many contemporary authors weave elements of both genres into their narratives. Romance novels are defined by their focus on the romantic relationship and a guaranteed emotionally satisfying ending. Women’s fiction, meanwhile, often delves into more varied aspects of women's lives, not necessarily centered solely on a love story and without the requirement of a romantic happy ending, though they often have one.

Both Heart Principle and Back in the Day incorporate these broader themes while maintaining a focus on the romantic relationships at their core, making them excellent examples of contemporary novels that blend both genres. This blending reflects a trend in modern literature towards more complex and multifaceted storytelling that resonates with a wide range of readers. This shift reflects a broader trend in the romance genre towards more complex and realistic portrayals of relationships and emotional experiences.

We hope.

So, what do you think about this shift in tone to include more than just the romance? Are you on board with this deeper dive, or do you lean toward the less heavy titles in this genre?

xo, Tasha

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