Death Of A Loved One Essay
Show More Death of a loved one When a loved one passes away we are never prepared for the changes that will come to our lives from this tragic accident. Receiving the call that my aunt had passed away in a car crash was very shocking to me and the whole family. It’s something that no family member in this world wants to go through the loss of a loved one. Managing the emotions and feelings we may have after the news is very important since we have to be strong minded and be able to move forward. Family will always be the most important thing we have in this world since they are everything we really have in life. I remember like if it was yesterday when I was preparing to go to bed and rest after a long and tiring day. I had a missed call from …show more content… My family and I still didn’t accept that fact that she was gone forever, it seemed like another day for us like if she was at her house preparing food for her children or cleaning her house. As we arrived to church, that’s when it really hit me that she was gone and I started feeling a weird feeling inside my stomach since I was really nervous of having to see her inside that coffin. Walking towards her coffin was really hard for me since it’s a very sad and hurtful experience that no one like to go through. I started to tear down as soon as I saw her 3 children cry for her. I gave them my condolences and let them know that we had to be strong and realize that know she was in heaven resting in …show more content… The most valued lesson I got from this was to appreciate every moment and the memories you get to make with your family.These are the only things that will be kept after they are gone forever. Also I believe that if you don’t value this kind of small stuff that in reality means a lot then you are not really living life to the fullest. Appreciation towards my family will be something I show to them from now until GOD decides that it’s time to leave this earth. I believe that GOD has a plan for everyone in this life and once we accomplish that plan he wants us back with him. I know forsure that my aunt is up in heaven taking care of us and her children. I will never forget how much of a loving and caring person she was, and especially that big and bright smile that she had on her face every time I got the chance to be with
Narrative essay on mother's death.
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I highly value family in my life. Family means so much to me, no matter what happens, they always have my back. In my life journeys, I am tough to be a good person, who always respect the other and honor precious things in life. Family also supports me whenever I have to face the difficulty. As we know, we already have best friends but our friends could not stay with us and could not sacrifice everything for us as well as our family could.…
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I sit back in amazement at the trials my family has overcome; all of the decisions that have been made to ensure everyone is taken care of. My mother gave me hope and I am truly inspired by her. Before my mother and stepfather got married, not having that fatherly influence still affects my life today, I look at things differently than most people would who have never lost a parent. You never know what you have until it is gone. Appreciate your parents because one day they will not be around anymore.…
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Losing a Loved One Essay example
Essay about anticipatory grief.
According to Kübler-Ross (as cited in Feldman, 2011), there are five steps taken toward death (Feldman, 2011, p. 609). These steps are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Feldman, 2011, p.615). Denial is a defense mechanism that gives the person time to adjust their thinking in-order to cope (Feldman, 2011, p. 610). Anger is a normal method of diverting pain and usually indicates an
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In the midst of undergoing a serious life-altering incident, one often experiences the feeling of a paradigm shift. It is amazing to see how our perspectives of the world shift when forced to reflect on what is truly important. Such is the way with death. Being near death causes a sharp realization of what is truly important in life--love of family and friends, faith in God, and making the world a better place to live in--and enables one to not merely accept this, but apply it to their life as well. All those typical, average daily worries and concerns about homework, professional careers, food, sleep, personal grooming, etc., while important and necessary in everyday life must seem unbelievably miniscule when the death has wiped ones
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The loss of a loved one is a very crucial time where an individual can experience depression, somatic symptoms, grief, and sadness. What will be discussed throughout this paper is what the bereavement role is and its duration, as well as the definition of disenfranchised grief and who experiences this type of grief. I will also touch upon the four tasks of mourning and how each bereaved individual must accomplish all four tasks before mourning can be finalized. Lastly, with each of these topics, nursing implications will be outlined on how to care for bereaved individuals and their families.
Grief is defined as a type of emotional or mental suffering from a loss, sorrow, or regret (Dictionary.com, LLC, 2010). Grief affects people of all ages, races, and sexes around the world. Approximately, 36% of the world’s population does or has suffered from grief and only a mere 10% of these people will seek out help (Theravive, 2009). Once a person is suffering from grief it is important to receive treatment. All too often, people ignore grief resulting in deep depression, substance abuse, and other disorders (Theravive, 2009). Grief counseling is very common and can be very helpful to a person in need of assistance. Grief counseling provides the support, understanding, and
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Loss of a Family Member 5 Pages 1166 Words
One of my most memorable and disheartening moments in my life was the day that I had to watch my grandfather lay in the hospital and die. When a family member passes on and it is one that you have a close bond with it is very hard to deal with. This was a difficult time for me I didn't understand why he had to die. I was angry at God because I thought that he had called my grandfather as a punishment or some sort of mean act. Each night I would ask god why he took my grandfather, my buddy, away from me. Things like this can drive someone insane; it certainly took its toil on me. Just like in Woiwode's "Wanting an Orange" the two little boys wanted an orange so bad that they were willing to act as if they were sick in order to get one. The same reaction took place in my thoughts as well. I thought that if I could die I could be with my grandfather in heaven. Trying to overcome this heartbreaking experience was awful and seemed to take forever. I felt as if the world was caving in on me. My whole world was falling down around me; it was almost as if everything I had ever known was taken from me. Things just kept getting worse. My saving grace was the talks that my Grandmother had with me. Watching her and seeing how that she dealt with the death of her husband, a man whom she loved with all of her heart and who she had lived with for so many years, made me realize that things would get better. Grandma talked to me and told me that it was not God's fault that he had taken grandpa to a much better place. She said that I should be thankful for all the time that we had be happy that grandpa was in the promise land. His suffering was over and now he could be happy. I began to understand that I had been selfish and feeling sorry for myself. Even though I was young I understood that God's will was a good thing. I still hurt but the pain was getting better, I knew that he could not be with me for...
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Narrative Essay About Death of Family Member
It’s safe to say that not everyone’s memory is perfect. We all forget things, like someone’s birthday or what our password for our phone is. Very normal, everyday stuff. In my life, I have experienced lots of forgetfulness. One of the biggest things in my life that seems to have been forgotten is my aunt.
My aunt, Stacy, was possibly one of the most wonderful people I knew (at least when I was a young child). She was smart, goofy, driven, and extremely kind. She had a sparkling personality and loved to wear bright colors and lots of sequins and glitter, so it was as if she was really wearing her heart on her sleeve. Though she was estranged from her given family due to reasons unknown, she devoted her life to having a strong family connection. She affected everyone around her. She looked up to my grandmother as a mother-figure since she didn’t have a great relationship with her biological mom. She had two sons, my cousins Jacob and Max, who she gave so much of her attention and love to. She and my mom would act like sisters everytime they were with each other, even though they sometimes didn’t see each other for months at a time because she lived in Florida while my parents lived in Vermont.
After I was born, Stacy and my mom’s bond got even stronger. Stacy had her two sons, but she always wanted a little girl, so once I was born she was able to live a life with a niece who she treated as a daughter. She and my mom would always go out shopping together, and she would constantly talk to my mom about how “gifted” she thought I was. She scheduled many visits so that we would all get together; sometimes in Florida, sometimes in Vermont.
It was about nine years ago when we first found out that she was diagnosed with a type of cancer called Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. My grandmother was visiting us in Vermont when we got a call that she was diagnosed. Around Christmas-time that same year, we went down to Florida to visit her and the rest of my family who lived there. She had just started Chemotherapy, and I remember being really confused when I walked in and she had no hair. It was weird seeing this strong woman I had known since I was born suddenly be so weak and yet so happy. We were visiting at that time to talk about her getting treatment in Dallas, Texas, but I didn’t know that until very recently. The following March, she officially began treatment in Dallas. The treatment was experimental, so no one knew if it was going to help her at all. In her case, the treatment didn’t help at all. By mid-April, the cancer had spread around her body, eventually making it to her brain. The doctors said that there was no treatment that would help her get better from this point, and that they would have to admit her to hospice. My mom rushed down to Florida as they transferred her to hospice, and she passed away just two days later.
After Stacy passed away, my uncle, Bennett, seemed to move on very quickly. He met his current wife, Katie, a few months after Stacy died, in July, and they were engaged after around four months, in November. They were then married the following August. The whole process seemed very sudden and fast to me, and still does to this day. It felt as though he never gave himself a chance to grieve before he moved on to someone new, and it still feels that way, at least to me. It felt as though he was pretending that over 15 years of his life never happened.
It has now been about seven and a half years since Stacy passed away. These days, my uncle and his new wife are tied up with raising three young girls. My uncle doesn’t pay much attention anymore to the needs of his two sons. One of his sons, Max, has Autism, and as soon as Stacy died, it seemed like he pushed Max away. Max started being raised by my grandparents for a while and is now in a career program where he isn't living in the best conditions. However, most of what I know of this scenario is coming from my grandmother, who likes to exaggerate what is happening, so maybe parts of this story aren’t entirely true. His other son, Jacob, acted as a nanny to his young siblings for many year and wouldn’t put his needs first. I’ve always wondered why Jacob let my uncle push him around so much since it’s really not Jacob’s job to be raising my young cousins. However, he did just start going to college for nursing this year, so I’m hoping that that will help him feel like he can make his own decisions.
One of the biggest factors of how things have been run in the Gordon family is my new aunt, Katie. She is a very strong-willed woman who doesn’t really like to let others make important choices. She convinced my uncle to have a child, who ended up being my cousin, Mira. They then adopted two more young girls, one from the Congo (Ellie) and one from China (Haley). My parents and I found it odd when they decided to adopt since it didn’t seem like they were in a place in their lives where they could raise more kids. Perhaps my uncle wanted to have daughters to somehow fulfill Stacy’s wish to raise little girls. Maybe that’s the last glimpse left of Stacy in my uncle’s life. I kind of hope that that’s the case. I’d like to imagine that he didn’t push her out of his mind completely, even if it’s not true.
I’ve always wondered why my uncle moved on so quickly. Maybe it’s because that was the only way to forget the traumatic experiences he went through in the last few months of Stacy’s life. Maybe his way of coping with his feelings is to push them away and forget about them. The latter seems to me as the reason for his actions, but of course I could never be one hundred percent sure of that. I hope that one day I can crack the case as to why everyone’s personalities and normal actions changed so much since Stacy’s death. I miss how close every part of the family was. I liked how often we would do visits, and how I felt like Max and Jacob were my older brothers. I know that those kinds of changes do come with ageing, but I do feel like some of this wasn’t caused by growing up.
I am definitely not the most religious person. I don’t go to my temple’s services every Saturday, and I don’t partake in Shabbat dinners on Friday nights. Regardless of this, sometimes I imagine some type of heaven for those who have passed to go to. As she’s up there in that hypothetical heaven, I wonder what my aunt might think when she looks down on Earth and sees the way things are now being run in the Gordon household. Is she proud? Is she discouraged? Is she ashamed? Maybe she feels forgotten. From the way I perceive my family’s actions, everyone in the Gordon household seems to pretend she never existed. No one, especially not my wonderful, kind, and brave aunt, deserves to be treated that way after death. No one deserves to disappear from people’s lives in an instant.
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8 Popular Essays About Death, Grief & the Afterlife
Joe Oliveto, BA in English
Death is a strange topic for many reasons, one of which is the simple fact that different people can have vastly different opinions about discussing it.
Jump ahead to these sections:
Essays or articles about the death of a loved one, essays or articles about dealing with grief, essays or articles about the afterlife or near-death experiences.
Some fear death so greatly they don’t want to talk about it at all. However, because death is a universal human experience, there are also those who believe firmly in addressing it directly. This may be more common now than ever before due to the rise of the death positive movement and mindset.
You might believe there’s something to be gained from talking and learning about death. If so, reading essays about death, grief, and even near-death experiences can potentially help you begin addressing your own death anxiety. This list of essays and articles is a good place to start. The essays here cover losing a loved one, dealing with grief, near-death experiences, and even what someone goes through when they know they’re dying.
Losing a close loved one is never an easy experience. However, these essays on the topic can help someone find some meaning or peace in their grief.
1. ‘I’m Sorry I Didn’t Respond to Your Email, My Husband Coughed to Death Two Years Ago’ by Rachel Ward
Rachel Ward’s essay about coping with the death of her husband isn’t like many essays about death. It’s very informal, packed with sarcastic humor, and uses an FAQ format. However, it earns a spot on this list due to the powerful way it describes the process of slowly finding joy in life again after losing a close loved one.
Ward’s experience is also interesting because in the years after her husband’s death, many new people came into her life unaware that she was a widow. Thus, she often had to tell these new people a story that’s painful but unavoidable. This is a common aspect of losing a loved one that not many discussions address.
2. ‘Everything I know about a good death I learned from my cat’ by Elizabeth Lopatto
Not all great essays about death need to be about human deaths! In this essay, author Elizabeth Lopatto explains how watching her beloved cat slowly die of leukemia and coordinating with her vet throughout the process helped her better understand what a “good death” looks like.
For instance, she explains how her vet provided a degree of treatment but never gave her false hope (for instance, by claiming her cat was going to beat her illness). They also worked together to make sure her cat was as comfortable as possible during the last stages of her life instead of prolonging her suffering with unnecessary treatments.
Lopatto compares this to the experiences of many people near death. Sometimes they struggle with knowing how to accept death because well-meaning doctors have given them the impression that more treatments may prolong or even save their lives, when the likelihood of them being effective is slimmer than patients may realize.
Instead, Lopatto argues that it’s important for loved ones and doctors to have honest and open conversations about death when someone’s passing is likely near. This can make it easier to prioritize their final wishes instead of filling their last days with hospital visits, uncomfortable treatments, and limited opportunities to enjoy themselves.
3. ‘The terrorist inside my husband’s brain’ by Susan Schneider Williams
This article, which Susan Schneider Williams wrote after the death of her husband Robin Willians, covers many of the topics that numerous essays about the death of a loved one cover, such as coping with life when you no longer have support from someone who offered so much of it.
However, it discusses living with someone coping with a difficult illness that you don’t fully understand, as well. The article also explains that the best way to honor loved ones who pass away after a long struggle is to work towards better understanding the illnesses that affected them.
4. ‘Before I Go’ by Paul Kalanithi
“Before I Go” is a unique essay in that it’s about the death of a loved one, written by the dying loved one. Its author, Paul Kalanithi, writes about how a terminal cancer diagnosis has changed the meaning of time for him.
Kalanithi describes believing he will die when his daughter is so young that she will likely never have any memories of him. As such, each new day brings mixed feelings. On the one hand, each day gives him a new opportunity to see his daughter grow, which brings him joy. On the other hand, he must struggle with knowing that every new day brings him closer to the day when he’ll have to leave her life.
Coping with grief can be immensely challenging. That said, as the stories in these essays illustrate, it is possible to manage grief in a positive and optimistic way.
5. Untitled by Sheryl Sandberg
This piece by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s current CEO, isn’t a traditional essay or article. It’s actually a long Facebook post. However, many find it’s one of the best essays about death and grief anyone has published in recent years.
She posted it on the last day of sheloshim for her husband, a period of 30 days involving intense mourning in Judaism. In the post, Sandberg describes in very honest terms how much she learned from those 30 days of mourning, admitting that she sometimes still experiences hopelessness, but has resolved to move forward in life productively and with dignity.
She explains how she wanted her life to be “Option A,” the one she had planned with her husband. However, because that’s no longer an option, she’s decided the best way to honor her husband’s memory is to do her absolute best with “Option B.”
This metaphor actually became the title of her next book. Option B , which Sandberg co-authored with Adam Grant, a psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is already one of the most beloved books about death , grief, and being resilient in the face of major life changes. It may strongly appeal to anyone who also appreciates essays about death as well.
6. ‘My Own Life’ by Oliver Sacks
Grief doesn’t merely involve grieving those we’ve lost. It can take the form of the grief someone feels when they know they’re going to die.
Renowned physician and author Oliver Sacks learned he had terminal cancer in 2015. In this essay, he openly admits that he fears his death. However, he also describes how knowing he is going to die soon provides a sense of clarity about what matters most. Instead of wallowing in his grief and fear, he writes about planning to make the very most of the limited time he still has.
Belief in (or at least hope for) an afterlife has been common throughout humanity for decades. Additionally, some people who have been clinically dead report actually having gone to the afterlife and experiencing it themselves.
Whether you want the comfort that comes from learning that the afterlife may indeed exist, or you simply find the topic of near-death experiences interesting, these are a couple of short articles worth checking out.
7. ‘My Experience in a Coma’ by Eben Alexander
“My Experience in a Coma” is a shortened version of the narrative Dr. Eben Alexander shared in his book, Proof of Heaven . Alexander’s near-death experience is unique, as he’s a medical doctor who believes that his experience is (as the name of his book suggests) proof that an afterlife exists. He explains how at the time he had this experience, he was clinically braindead, and therefore should not have been able to consciously experience anything.
Alexander describes the afterlife in much the same way many others who’ve had near-death experiences describe it. He describes starting out in an “unresponsive realm” before a spinning white light that brought with it a musical melody transported him to a valley of abundant plant life, crystal pools, and angelic choirs. He states he continued to move from one realm to another, each realm higher than the last, before reaching the realm where the infinite love of God (which he says is not the “god” of any particular religion) overwhelmed him.
8. “One Man's Tale of Dying—And Then Waking Up” by Paul Perry
The author of this essay recounts what he considers to be one of the strongest near-death experience stories he’s heard out of the many he’s researched and written about over the years. The story involves Dr. Rajiv Parti, who claims his near-death experience changed his views on life dramatically.
Parti was highly materialistic before his near-death experience. During it, he claims to have been given a new perspective, realizing that life is about more than what his wealth can purchase. He returned from the experience with a permanently changed outlook.
This is common among those who claim to have had near-death experiences. Often, these experiences leave them kinder, more understanding, more spiritual, and less materialistic.
This short article is a basic introduction to Parti’s story. He describes it himself in greater detail in the book Dying to Wake Up , which he co-wrote with Paul Perry, the author of the article.
Essays About Death: Discussing a Difficult Topic
It’s completely natural and understandable to have reservations about discussing death. However, because death is unavoidable, talking about it and reading essays and books about death instead of avoiding the topic altogether is something that benefits many people. Sometimes, the only way to cope with something frightening is to address it.
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Essays About Losing a Loved One: Top 5 Examples
Writing essays about losing a loved one can be challenging; discover our helpful guide with essay examples and writing prompts to help you begin writing.
One of the most basic facts of life is that it is unpredictable. Nothing on this earth is permanent, and any one of us can pass away in the blink of an eye. But unfortunately, they leave behind many family members and friends who will miss them very much whenever someone dies.
The most devastating news can ruin our best days, affecting us negatively for the next few months and years. When we lose a loved one, we also lose a part of ourselves. Even if the loss can make you feel hopeless at times, finding ways to cope healthily, distract yourself, and move on while still honoring and remembering the deceased is essential.
5 Top Essay Examples
1. losing a loved one by louis barker, 2. personal reflections on coping and loss by adrian furnham , 3. losing my mom helped me become a better parent by trish mann, 4. reflection – dealing with grief and loss by joe joyce.
- 5. Will We Always Hurt on The Anniversary of Losing a Loved One? by Anne Peterson
6 Thought-Provoking Writing Prompts on Essays About Losing A Loved One
“I managed to keep my cool until I realized why I was seeing these familiar faces. Once the service started I managed to keep my emotions in tack until I saw my grandmother break down. I could not even look up at her because I thought about how I would feel in the same situation. Your life can change drastically at any moment. Do not take life or the people that you love for granted, you are only here once.”
Barker reflects on how he found out his uncle had passed away. The writer describes the events leading up to the discovery, contrasting the relaxed, cheerful mood and setting that enveloped the house with the feelings of shock, dread, and devastation that he and his family felt once they heard. He also recalls his family members’ different emotions and mannerisms at the memorial service and funeral.
“Most people like to believe that they live in a just, orderly and stable world where good wins out in the end. But what if things really are random? Counselors and therapists talk about the grief process and grief stages. Given that nearly all of us have experienced major loss and observed it in others, might one expect that people would be relatively sophisticated in helping the grieving?”
Furnham, a psychologist, discusses the stages of grief and proposes six different responses to finding out about one’s loss or suffering: avoidance, brief encounters, miracle cures, real listeners, practical help, and “giving no quarter.” He discusses this in the context of his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, after which many people displayed these responses. Finally, Furnham mentions the irony that although we have all experienced and observed losing a loved one, no one can help others grieve perfectly.
“When I look in the mirror, I see my mom looking back at me from coffee-colored eyes under the oh-so-familiar crease of her eyelid. She is still here in me. Death does not take what we do not relinquish. I have no doubt she is sitting beside me when I am at my lowest telling me, ‘You can do this. You got this. I believe in you.’”
In Mann’s essay, she tries to see the bright side of her loss; despite the anguish she experienced due to her mother’s passing. Expectedly, she was incredibly depressed and had difficulty accepting that her mom was gone. But, on the other hand, she began to channel her mom into parenting her children, evoking the happy memories they once shared. She is also amused to see the parallels between her and her kids with her and her mother growing up.
“Now I understood that these feelings must be allowed expression for as long as a person needs. I realized that the “don’t cry” I had spoken on many occasions in the past was not of much help to grieving persons, and that when I had used those words I had been expressing more my own discomfort with feelings of grief and loss than paying attention to the need of mourners to express them.”
Joyce, a priest, writes about the time he witnessed the passing of his cousin on his deathbed. Having experienced this loss right as it happened, he was understandably shaken and realized that all his preachings of “don’t cry” were unrealistic. He compares this instance to a funeral he attended in Pakistan, recalling the importance of letting grief take its course while not allowing it to consume you.
5. Will We Always Hurt on The Anniversary of Losing a Loved One? by Anne Peterson
“Death. It’s certain. And we can’t do anything about that. In fact, we are not in control of many of the difficult circumstances of our lives, but we are responsible for how we respond to them. And I choose to honor their memory.”
Peterson discusses how she feels when she has to commemorate the anniversary of losing a loved one. She recalls the tragic deaths of her sister, two brothers, and granddaughter and describes her guilt and anger. Finally, she prays to God, asking him to help her; because of a combination of prayer and self-reflection, she can look back on these times with peace and hope that they will reunite one day.
1. Is Resilience Glorified in Society?
Society tends to praise those who show resilience and strength, especially in times of struggle, such as losing a loved one. However, praising a person’s resilience can prevent them from feeling the pain of loss and grief. This essay explores how glorifying resilience can prevent a person from healing from painful events. Be sure to include examples of this issue in society and your own experiences, if applicable.
2. How to Cope with a Loss
Loss is always tricky, especially involving someone close to your heart. Reflect on your personal experiences and how you overcame your grief for an effective essay. Create an essay to guide readers on how to cope with loss. If you can’t pull ideas from your own experiences, research and read other people’s experiences with overcoming loss in life.
3. Reflection on Losing a Loved One
If you have experienced losing a loved one, use this essay to describe how it made you feel. Discuss how you reacted to this loss and how it has impacted who you are today. Writing an essay like this may be sensitive for many. If you don’t feel comfortable with this topic, you can write about and analyze the loss of a loved one in a book, movie, or TV show you have seen.
4. The Stages of Grief
When we lose a loved one, grief is expected. There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Discuss each one and how they all connect. You can write a compelling essay by including examples of how the different stages are manifested in books, television, and maybe even your own experiences.
5. The Circle of Life
Death is often regarded as a part of a so-called “circle of life,” most famously shown through the film, The Lion King . In summary, it explains that life goes on and always ends with death. For an intriguing essay topic, reflect on this phrase and discuss what it means to you in the context of losing a loved one. For example, perhaps keeping this in mind can help you cope with the loss.
6. How Different Cultures Commemorate Losing a Loved One
Different cultures have different traditions, affected by geography, religion, and history. Funerals are no exception to this; in your essay, research how different cultures honor their deceased and compare and contrast them. No matter how different they may seem, try finding one or two similarities between your chosen traditions.
If you’d like to learn more, our writer explains how to write an argumentative essay in this guide.For help picking your next essay topic, check out our 20 engaging essay topics about family .
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Martin is an avid writer specializing in editing and proofreading. He also enjoys literary analysis and writing about food and travel.
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5 Ways to Make College Essays About Tragedy More Memorable
Difficult and personal topics of tragedy and loss aren’t easy for many people to talk about, let alone write about for others to read. This makes college essays about tragedy challenging for many applicants.
To be sure, a college essay on the death of a parent or death in a family can have a positive impact on a student’s application. The gravity of these subjects makes them impactful, full of emotions, and very captivating for admissions officers, but only if they’re done right. You see since so many students experience tragedy and loss as it’s a part of life, sometimes these topics can come across as cliche.
Writing About Tragedy in the College Application Essay: Should It Be Done?
When preparing to write a meaningful, personal, and impactful college application essay, something tragic that’s happened in your life might seem like a fitting topic. It’s revealing, emotional, and raw – seems like a fitting topic, right? Well, you’ll hear a variety of different opinions when you ask whether or not painful and sad college essays are a good idea.
One camp says that these subjects can come across as cliche since many applicants struggle with similar experiences or issues. However, another group will say that these stories are so personal and important that you’re doing yourself a disservice by not writing about them.
What’s the real answer? At AdmissionSight , we’ve helped countless students master their college application essays, and this is a common topic that’s brought up. Through our experience, we can confidently say that tragedy and loss are fit subjects for a college essay if – and only if – they’re approached carefully and diligently.
It is true that these subjects are poised to do well, but they also run the risk of appearing too vague and commonplace. Like many things related to the college admissions process, if you’re going to do it, you better do it right!
The Right Way to Write About Tragedy in College Application
If you’ve experienced tragedy or loss in your life and you’re confident you want to broach the topic in your college application essay, you’ll have to approach it differently than other subjects. These sensitive topics require more tact and care than others. But, when used properly, they can have a tremendous impact and can make your college application essay stand out from the crowd. Here, we’ll explore some tips for how to approach tragedy and loss in your college essay
1. Be open and honest.
When writing about tragic events, some people feel the need to stray away from the truth for many reasons. In some cases, applicants feel that speaking too bluntly and openly about their experiences would come across as too forward, revealing, or raw. On the flip side, some applicants feel as though they need to rewrite themselves as being closer to the tragic event than they might appear in real life. No matter which way you’re being pulled, it’s important to remain as honest as possible when writing your essay. This ensures your meaningful story stays as genuine and authentic as possible.
You shouldn’t feel the need to dress your story up or strip it down. Don’t act like you were impacted in ways that you weren’t. This can come across as fake, and you’d be surprised how easy this is to detect in writing – especially when touching upon such serious topics. You also don’t have to be immediately close to a tragic event in order to have been impacted by it. If something truly affected you, it’ll come through in your writing no matter what happened. Being aboveboard and forthright will be your best assets when writing a memorable college essay on such a serious subject as tragedy and loss.
2. Use the right language.
When dealing with heavy topics on your college application essay, it’s often tough to find a balance between authenticity and great writing. After all, a college essay is made or broken by the topic that’s written about. In the same way, even the most talented and exciting writing can fall flat when the subject of the piece isn’t suitable. When writing college essays about tragedy and loss, students need to write in a way that’s believable while still conveying genuine emotions and feelings. Be ready to go through a ton of drafts before you touch upon something that works as a final draft. Writing short, punchy sentences is always a good place to start.
3. Connect it to the prompt.
Although colleges do have essay prompts that are more personal in nature, it’s rare to find a topic related directly to a tragic event. In general, universities won’t ask students to recount these personal events on their applications. However, that doesn’t mean that you won’t find an open-ended prompt where these subjects are appropriate. In fact, it is common for universities to include questions that request students talk about formative experiences in their life. No matter what kind of prompt you choose to respond to by talking about a tragic event or loss, you need to be sure to reconnect it with the theme.
For example, let’s say a college application essay prompt is asking you to talk about how you developed an interest in your field of study. Maybe you’re pursuing a degree in the medical field because you had a close friend who died of cancer. Their passing had such a tremendous impact on you that you decided to dedicate your life to helping those suffering from the same illness. While the experience of loss and tragedy adds a powerful element to the response, it’s not the whole answer. It still needs to be connected to the original question. It’s imperative that students don’t get too caught up in writing about the event that they forget to bring it full circle.
4. Focus on yourself.
When you recount a tragic event or loss in your life, it’s often described as something that happened to you. Especially when dealing with the loss of a loved one, an applicant’s instinct is to focus on the individual rather than themselves. However, when writing college essays on tragedy, students have to remember to talk about themselves. It might sound selfish and inappropriate given the gravity of the event. However, admissions officers are interested in learning more about you through these essays. If you spend the whole time talking about somebody else, it won’t end up being a good college application essay topic.
How did the tragedy or loss affect you? How did you feel throughout the grieving process? Have you changed permanently after the experience? How is it impacting what you’re doing today? Has it altered your direction or goals in life? These are all pertinent questions that – if applicable to the prompt – should be included in your response. You want to give admissions officers a glimpse of who you are as a person. That’s why it’s important to focus a good portion of your essay on how this experience impacted you directly.
5. Be respectful.
One of the most important tips for how to approach tragedy and loss in a college essay is with a high level of respect. A common reason some students are hesitant to write about these topics is because of how personal and revealing they are. While your name will obviously be on the application, you don’t (and shouldn’t) need to include the names of other people involved in your story. You can always throw in fake names to make the response flow better or leave out names altogether. Either way, you’ll want to remain as discreet and anonymous as possible. This isn’t only respectful to others involved but also shows tact to admissions officers.
Don’t worry. You’re not going to lose any points for not being specific. As a common topic for many applicants, colleges are used to reading these stories. It’s common practice to omit some personal details. Besides, as we mentioned before, the most important part of your story is how you were affected in the process.
Sample College Essays About Tragedy and Loss
Now that we’ve explored some tips for making college essays about tragedy more effective for your application, it’s time to take a look at an actual example. Although the aforementioned tips are incredibly helpful, seeing a successful essay on these subjects is very informative. Read through this great essay carefully and, thinking back to the tips we mentioned, guess what we like so much about it. Then, we’ll explain it in detail.
Written for the Common App college application essays “Tell us your story” prompt. This essay could work for prompts 1 and 7 for the Common App.
“They covered the precious mahogany coffin with a brown amalgam of rocks, decomposed organisms, and weeds. It was my turn to take the shovel, but I felt too ashamed to dutifully send her off when I had not properly said goodbye. I refused to throw dirt on her. I refused to let go of my grandmother, to accept a death I had not seen coming, to believe that an illness could not only interrupt but steal a beloved life.
When my parents finally revealed to me that my grandmother had been battling liver cancer, I was twelve and I was angry–mostly with myself. They had wanted to protect me–only six years old at the time–from the complex and morose concept of death. However, when the end inevitably arrived, I wasn’t trying to comprehend what dying was; I was trying to understand how I had been able to abandon my sick grandmother in favor of playing with friends and watching TV. Hurt that my parents had deceived me and resentful of my own oblivion, I committed myself to prevent such blindness from resurfacing.
I became desperately devoted to my education because I saw knowledge as the key to freeing myself from the chains of ignorance. While learning about cancer in school I promised myself that I would memorize every fact and absorb every detail in textbooks and online medical journals. And as I began to consider my future, I realized that what I learned in school would allow me to silence that which had silenced my grandmother. However, I was focused not on learning itself, but on good grades and high test scores. I started to believe that academic perfection would be the only way to redeem myself in her eyes–to make up for what I had not done as a granddaughter.
However, a simple walk on a hiking trail behind my house made me open my own eyes to the truth. Over the years, everything–even honoring my grandmother–had become second to school and grades. As my shoes humbly tapped against the Earth, the towering trees blackened by the forest fire a few years ago, the faintly colorful pebbles embedded in the sidewalk, and the wispy white clouds hanging in the sky reminded me of my small though nonetheless significant part in a larger whole that is humankind and this Earth. Before I could resolve my guilt, I had to broaden my perspective of the world as well as my responsibilities to my fellow humans.
Volunteering at a cancer treatment center has helped me discover my path. When I see patients trapped in not only the hospital but also a moment in time by their diseases, I talk to them. For six hours a day, three times a week, Ivana is surrounded by IV stands, empty walls, and busy nurses that quietly yet constantly remind her of her breast cancer. Her face is pale and tired, yet kind–not unlike my grandmother’s. I need only to smile and say hello to see her brighten up as life returns to her face. Upon our first meeting, she opened up about her two sons, her hometown, and her knitting group–no mention of her disease. Without even standing up, the three of us—Ivana, me, and my grandmother–had taken a walk together.
Cancer, as powerful and invincible as it may seem, is a mere fraction of a person’s life. It’s easy to forget when one’s mind and body are so weak and vulnerable. I want to be there as an oncologist to remind them to take a walk once in a while, to remember that there’s so much more to life than a disease. While I physically treat their cancer, I want to lend patients emotional support and mental strength to escape the interruption and continue living. Through my work, I can accept the shovel without burying my grandmother’s memory.”
What we like about this essay
It’s not often we come across college essays about tragedy and loss that hit all of the right points. Generally, these essays are too cliche despite their serious contents. Here, we’ll outline some things we loved about this essay and why we chose it as a great example of a college essay on death:
- The writer is able to broach a serious topic such as death, cancer, and the loss of a loved one with positivity and a sense of hope.
- The essay focuses on how the applicant was impacted by the experience more than it does the actual experience itself.
- It includes all of the details needed to convey the message without going over the word limit or getting too bogged down in specifics.
- The applicant talks specifically about how their tragic experiences impacted them personally while explaining how they’ll move forward in the future after this change.
- The essay describes how the tragedy and loss affect what they’ll want to study in college, helping admission officers make a connection between this event and the applicant’s plans for university.
- There are enough detail and personality without being too revealing as to make it uncomfortable or awkward for the reader.
Need help getting into top-tier colleges?
Essays are an integral part of the college admission process. In order to secure a spot in the incoming class in the university of your dreams, you need to nail this portion of the application. Fortunately, there’s a professional college admissions coach who can help you perfect your essays.
AdmissionSight is a leading college entrance specialist with years of experience successfully helping students like you gain admittance to their chosen universities. Our essay editing services can help you stand out amongst the crowd of applicants, even at some of the top-tier universities in the country.
Feel free to contact AdmissionSight to learn more about the services we offer and how you can benefit from them.
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"The Death" - Narrative Essay Sample
The day my grandfather died was actually the saddest day of my life. This is because, as a child, I lived with my grandfather. Since I was living with him, my grandfather not only became the most important person in my life but also he was my best friend with whom I shared my happiest and saddest times.
Every time I was thinking about my grandfather, I got a warm feeling in my heart. However, things changed the very moment I received the saddest news that completely confused me. The news of my grandfather’s death. What made things even worse was that I did not even know that my grandfather was gravely ill. The thing is that my mom and cousins had chosen not to tell me. I was getting busy with my end-of-semester exams just at the same time when my grandfather became ill. For that reason, my family decided not to disturb me and let me focus on my academic career.
I can still recall that fateful Thursday morning when my cousin arrived at the college’s residential hall where I was staying. No matter how many questions I asked, he did not actually tell me what was happening. However, from his hesitant voice, I could tell that something was terribly wrong. About an hour later, my mother also was there. She was the one who clearly told me that my grandfather had actually passed away. Even though my mother told me the sad news with a soothing tone, I still couldn’t believe her. I asked them to accompany me to my grandfather’s home. The one-hour journey to my grandfather’s house felt like an eternity. I kept wishing my mother would drive faster and faster towards my grandfather’s house. As we headed towards his home, the memories of the many happy moments we shared kept crossing my mind. As the thoughts kept coming, I could not help but to feel some intense sadness as tears freely rolled down my cheeks. It was only when I got to my grandfather’s place, I realized that neither was he there to welcome us, nor was he anywhere in the house. The unbearable reality hit me right there – my grandfather was indeed dead. Death had taken my true friend away from me.
A few days later, the time came to hold a mass in honor of my departed grandfather. My family members, neighbors, and family friends met in the local church, where several speakers gave emotional speeches of what they could recall about my grandfather and best friend. Once the mass was over, we headed to the cemetery and found that some men had already made all the preparations for my grandfather’s burial. The pole bearers allowed us to have a last look at my grandfather so we could say our last goodbye before the funeral.
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Since then, I’ve been thinking about my grandfather every single day. I like taking those piles of photos that we made together and look at my loved ones. I’m still sad about my grandfather’s death, and I know that this is not going to change. However, I am happy that I have all these memories and thankful for all the moments that we shared.
Tips for Writing a Narrative Essay
What is a narrative essay? The key purpose of the paper is to tell the reader about experience, events, and interactions that have happened to you during a particular period of time. One of the must-have elements of a narrative essay is a vivid plot.
An important point to remember when writing a narrative essay about death is that one is supposed to write about how death affected the speaker or narrator of the essay. The essay should be organized chronologically, meaning, in the order that events occurred or took place. Furthermore, in an effort to draw the reader in, the writer needs to include what the speaker or narrator of the essay is feeling. Concrete details also help the reader to visualize the events taking place and, thus, to become more engaged.
Consider the topic. No matter what topic you decide to write on, ensure you can convert your experience behind it into a compelling story that is important to you. The essay will turn into a failure if the narrator is not involved in it and doesn’t want to share some experience with others.
Storyline ingredients. Most narrative essays include basic elements as the plot, setting, description, characters, and some other issues that help hook your readers and make them ponder over what you had to say.
Outline your narrative essay. Where, when, and how does your story start? When, where, and how does it end? Create a shortlist of all the important plot elements to ensure your narrative essay contains the beginning, the middle part, and the end.
Describe the important essay characters. Is there anyone else in the plot, other than yourself? What are the specific details that you can share about the other people in the story? Have they somehow affected the story outcome?
Include an antagonist. A good narrative essay plot usually includes a protagonist, an antagonist, and a conflict created by those two. While the protagonist is the main character of the story (in most cases, it’s you), the antagonist is a person, some event, or the thing that keeps you from getting what you want.
Describe the setting. The setting is as important to a winning narrative essay as the plot and the characters. Where exactly did your story take place? In the woods? In the street? At home? Tell your readers about the location and show them how it becomes an integral part of the plot.
Do not neglect re-read your narrative essay to detect any grammar, punctuation, or style errors. Keep in mind that even the most engaging and attractive plot won’t keep your audience reading your text if it’s full of mistakes.
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Three Torajan children spend time with their deceased grandmother Alfrida in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by Tommy Trenchard/Panos Pictures
Is grandad on the moon?
We no longer have a clear sense of how to introduce our children to death. But their questions can help us face up to it
by Pragya Agarwal + BIO
One of my four-year-old twins is obsessed with death. She wants to know everything about dying. Again and again, she asks me to tell her about what happens when people die. Initially, I was a little surprised by her fascination with ‘died’ people, as she calls them, but then it became clear that she was thinking a lot about this whenever she was quiet.
‘Will you tell me more about dying. What happens when people die?’ she asks me every night before bed.
‘Their bodies stop working. Their hearts stop working,’ I tell her.
‘Is this what happened with Naanaa?’
Naanaa – my father, their grandfather – died in November last year. The twins met him only once, just before their third birthday when we visited India in 2019, although we tried to speak regularly over FaceTime. We were due to visit again in early 2020, but then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and slowly he became more ill, more frail; the loneliness and isolation of the lockdown, and the lack of adequate healthcare during these weeks and months, took their toll on him.
Preschool children can make sense of death, but only through their parent’s grief, and this is clearly what is happening here: I’d travelled to India and stayed for a week after my father’s funeral and was very open with my children about my sadness. I want them to understand that their grandfather is dead, and I want them to know him, if only through my memories. I also want to normalise talking about death going hand-in-hand with life, especially as right now, with the world in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic crisis, my children hear my husband and I talking about death so often.
I am acutely aware how often children are left out of conversations around death because adults are hesitant (even avoidant) about discussing it; they fear upsetting or scaring their children, or worry that they’ll be unable to understand the concept of death. Research from 2014 based on interviews with parents and teachers of three- to six-year-old children in the US Midwest identified a tendency among modern parents to assume that children are too immature emotionally to comprehend death. According to the UK charity Winston’s Wish, which estimates that one child in Britain is bereaved of a parent every 22 minutes (that’s approximately 24,000 children per year), there’s still a pronounced reluctance among parents to discuss death with children, and a lack of understanding of how children process death. Rather than allowing death to be a natural part of life, parents shield and protect children from the realities of death.
I try to tackle matters at a pragmatic, scientific level, keeping close to the facts, since research shows that it’s best to stick to biology when explaining death to children under six. I try to find books like E B White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952) that might help my four-year-olds better grasp death and loss, without invoking a spiritual dimension, and I struggle. There aren’t many research studies that explore the effects of parent socialisation and communication on children’s understanding of death, and while there’s no lack of websites offering tips on how to talk to children about death, most of these are questionable and disregard children’s cognitive development. I put out a call on Twitter, which unearths some helpful books, but mainly it underscores a clear lack of literature for younger children that grapples with this subject in a pragmatic manner.
Of course, how we understand death in biological terms has changed over the years. For a long time, the clinical definition of death was the absence of a heartbeat, but stopped hearts can now be pumped by machines. So the definition was modified to include the ‘irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem’. In Western society, clinical death is linked to eight criteria: the absence of a spontaneous response to any stimuli; a complete lack of response to even the most painful stimuli; the lack of spontaneous respiration for at least one hour; the absence of postural activity, swallowing, yawning or vocalising; no eye movements, blinking or pupil responses; a flat electroencephalogram (EEG) for at least 10 minutes; a total absence of motor reflexes; and there being no change in the above criteria after 24 hours. In other cultures, the notion of a person ‘dying’ can be more abstract and less rigid: in some South Pacific cultures, for example , even when a person is sleeping or ill, they can be called ‘dead’, so someone can die several times before they have died in biological terms.
I remember the first time my own children started making a sense of ‘died’, when they saw a ladybird in the garden that wasn’t moving. ‘Make it move, Mummy,’ they would plead, imploring me to wake up the ladybug. And, then there was our elderly neighbour who died just before the last lockdown in 2020, and they must have overheard us talking about her. ‘Has the lady gone away somewhere?’ one of them asked me but then immediately forgot about it. This time, though, the questions keep coming.
W here does this fascination with death come from? Babies don’t have a sense of death. Before the age of two, the child can pretend that death is something that doesn’t happen if they can’t see it. In fact, children don’t have much sense of death until the age of three. They might perceive it as being different, but there’s no concrete sense of loss. It might be that they’re affected by the emotional reaction of their parents and caretakers if there is a death in the immediate family, or if they lose a pet.
In 1948, the psychologist Maria Nagy’s now-classic analysis of responses from around 350 children aged three to 10 revealed three distinct stages in the way they start to understand death. Between the age of three and five, they still see death as a journey from which a person can return. They might only understand that adults in their lives hide themselves in games such as peekaboo and then reappear again, or that their parents disappear on work trips but return at some point. Children under five don’t have a notion of separation whereby they understand where the dead are located. Instead, they personify death, sometimes thinking of death as ‘going to sleep’. The notion of permanence is difficult for them to comprehend. Nagy’s study showed that children think of death as temporary. They can comprehend that a heart ceases to beat, but often they can focus only on one concept at a time, and it’s difficult for them to make sense of how long death will last. Children try to rationalise permanence by explaining that heaven is too far away or that the coffin is shut too tight for the dead person to return. At around age six, children start to understand the irreversibility of dying. And, slowly, they understand the cause: that the loss of bodily functions leads to death.
According to the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s influential cognitive development model of the 1920s (a reworking of an earlier model by the US psychologist J M Baldwin ), there’s a logical structure to how young children form schemas of the world through their mental and physical actions. As they gather more knowledge and as their self-centred view of the world expands to include other perspectives and more abstract conceptualisations, children update these schemas. At around age six or seven, children enter what Piaget called ‘the concrete operational stage’ where they can process more logical thought and reasoning: they seem to grasp the universality of death now, although they’re still confused by the concept of what happens afterwards. Even at this age, some children still rely on magical thinking to make sense of death, associating it with a figure they can define, such as a ghost or an embodied form, for example the Grim Reaper. But as they move into the ‘formal operational stage’ at around age 12, their broader scientific reasoning ability allows them to grasp more symbolic and abstract notions of death, even including a theoretical perspective on how death is conceptualised.
Telling children that loved ones ‘are at peace now’ or that ‘they are happy in heaven’ can cause complications
Children’s understanding of death is also shaped by their cultural and religious backgrounds and their unique life experiences. The Russian American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner’s human ecological perspective provides an important organising framework for understanding how children’s environment – what in the 1970s he termed their ‘mesosytem’ – acts to affect their development. This mesosystem can include the immediate family and their views and reactions to death, school and friends, and the broader culture. In a study from 2019, researchers found that preschoolers in India displayed a more mature understanding of the irreversibility and universality of death, compared with their understanding of its nonfunctionality (ie, that all the body’s functions cease). A 2014 study with 188 children (both white British and British Muslim children living in London, and also Pakistani Muslims living in rural Pakistan) published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology found that rural living can also affect conceptualisations of death: Pakistani Muslim children understood irreversibility earlier than the children in both British groups.
Exposure to death, war and strife can also exert an influence. Central conceptual structures theory, a neo-Piagetian theory proposed by the Canadian psychologist Robbie Case in the 1990s, complements this by suggesting that children move back and forth between the different developmental stages and strategies until they’re able to develop a more integrative approach to problem-solving. Cognitive ability isn’t necessarily a barrier to the way children understand death to be separate from sleeping or that it’s irreversible, even if the language used about death is sometimes an obstacle. Often, adults explain away death by telling children that loved ones ‘are at peace now’ or that ‘they are happy in heaven’, which can cause complications from a cognitive development perspective for a child, in conflicting with their biological understanding of death or alleviating negative emotions about why the person chose to leave in the first place, the notion that it was somehow their fault if they did.
The easiest thing would be for me to tell my children that, yes, their grandfather is gone, and he is never coming back: that is what happens when people die. But I’m still not in a place where I can talk about my father having gone forever. The notion of permanence is something my own children seem to be struggling with right now, and something I have to remind myself of too, through my conversations with them. My father is not coming back. I can sometimes close my eyes and imagine him to be still there, in India, and forget that he is no more. Our many thousands of miles of separation means that I have always been missing him, since I moved to the UK 20 years ago. I am trying to figure out how to start grieving his loss when I have always been grieving this separation.
I n a way, I suppose the cycle of grief isn’t that different for grown-ups. The first stage of grief and loss is heavily weighted with guilt, just as it is for young children caught up in an egocentric view of the world in which anything that goes wrong must somehow be their fault. In a similar vein, I haul myself over the coals: if only I’d spoken to my father more often… if only I’d visited India more often… if only I’d looked after him. We keep walking this torturous path, asking questions of ourselves, berating ourselves, trying to take control of the helplessness we feel. Children do the same thing, though not only as a means of taking back some control but because, until they’re six or seven, their circle of reference is very small. They see the world from their perspective alone, not yet grasping that things can look different for different people.
Although my children and I looked at the lifecycle of butterflies and frogs last summer, and talked about how, when an insect dies, another one is born from the eggs, they took this matter-of-factly, as something that happens in nature, not relating it to how things happen with us too. The biological aspect of death, even its inevitability, is easier for children to comprehend; that when someone is old, they die; when they get hurt and lose a lot of blood, they might die; when they suffocate and cannot breathe, they might die. But the spiritual layer still eludes them. One of my four-year-olds sees a burial ground as we drive past a church, and has many questions about what happens to the people under the gravestones. The next morning, I find her on top of me, asking if we can rescue all the people in the graves by going and setting them free. Somehow the idea of freeing them aligns with the spiritual belief of a soul passing over to another dimension, away from the circle of life and death.
‘Could we bring Naanaa back to this room maybe even if he lies on the floor?’ one of them pipes up one night. And: ‘Where do people go once they are dead?’ I’m not sure where they have got the idea that a dead body has to be laid down on the floor. I think of the Hindu funerary rituals in which the deceased is placed on the floor, their toes tied with a string, and their feet pointing towards the south, which is the direction of the god of death, Yama. They hadn’t been there when all this happened for my father. I hadn’t been there either: his cremation had to be done in a hurry, within a few hours of his dying, and with just a handful of close family to hand, due to COVID-19 restrictions. There were no shlokas (mantras) and no cremation near the Ganges. He had to be cremated quickly in an electric crematorium and I never saw his dead body. It all seems unreal, surreal even. Did it even happen if I didn’t see it?
Attending funerals helps children acknowledge the death and receive comfort and assistance
Like my children, I don’t even know where people are, once they are dead. Do they just disappear into the ether? One minute here, breathing, screaming, raging, laughing, disappointed, proud, happy, sad, and then, the next second, in a flip of a switch, they are nothing. How does this work? I can’t get my head around it. As someone who was raised a Hindu, but who doesn’t follow any religious ideology, I am reluctant to impose notions of heaven or immortality on my children. Yet practices that lead to symbolic immortality can help people, especially children, cope with the awareness of death, according to the terror management theory (TMT) proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon and Tom Pyszczynski in 1986. TMT, derived from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death (1973) by the US anthropologist Ernest Becker, proposes that cultural beliefs and escapism can assuage children’s terror and anxiety around death and mortality.
The Australian psychologist Virginia Slaughter has proposed a model of sub-concepts through which children develop an understanding of death via the various layers of biology and spirituality. Indeed, in some cultures, death is seen as an integral part of life. In her TED talk ‘Life That Doesn’t End with Death’ (2013), the US cultural anthropologist Kelli Swazey talks about the people of Tana Toraja in eastern Indonesia, who refer to the dead person as one who is only ‘sick’ or ‘asleep’. The person in question is laid to rest in a spare room where all the daily rituals of feeding and caring continue to happen, and they remain an integral part of the family’s life. During this transition period, the younger members of the family are able to acquaint themselves with that liminal space between life and death.
Critically, rituals help us to externalise feelings we might otherwise repress. Children can learn to deal better with death’s permanence, for example, if they’re allowed to attend the funeral. The US bereavement experts Phyllis Silverman and J William Worden have shown that attending funerals helps children acknowledge the death and receive comfort and assistance. Their 1992 study looked at 120 bereaved children, 95 per cent of whom had been allowed to attend the funeral. Two years later, these children acknowledged that being at the funeral had been important in helping them honour the deceased and in receiving support and comfort. In their 2001 study , the US clinical psychologists Mary Fristad, Julie Cerel and colleagues reported that specific aspects of funerary rituals such as music and readings were of critical importance in assisting children through these emotionally charged events. Their study with 318 subjects aged between five and 17 found that children described active participation (eg, choosing flowers) as a useful action, and that the symbolism of rituals, such as playing a favourite song, brought them long-term comfort.
Rituals, storytelling and play all help children to vocalise emotions that they might find difficult to convey otherwise. They can act as buffers in times of emotional turbulence. I remember how I lost my grandfather when I was just six or seven, and we went to stay at my grandparent’s house for a fortnight, through all the Hindu rituals, until the 13th day when prayers are read for the departed soul to achieve sadgati (salvation). All the cousins were there, and the children had a peer group of varying ages as a support while we processed our loss and grief.
I n modern families, the experience of death has changed a good deal over the years, since many children don’t experience a death in their immediate families until they’re much older. In the distant past, death was very much part of everyday life, given the high rates of mortality, and most deaths happened at home – the result of illness. As people usually lived in large close-knit communities and families, children were very much part of the rituals surrounding a death. But that changed as families moved away, and as people began living longer. Now, many of these traditional rituals have shifted to modern practices, which affects how children perceive the realities of death. Even in Irish culture, which has traditionally been one of the most death-conscious, placing great value on the social dimension of dealing with death, old-style wakes held at home are being replaced with other, quicker approaches. This has reduced children’s participation in death rituals, putting greater responsibility on parents and teachers to make grief education part of children’s education.
These days, with families typically spread around the world, so many of us face the death of a loved one at a distance that cannot be bridged, something the pandemic has cruelly highlighted. It has become even harder for children to understand how someone who was already far away actually isn’t there anymore. That feeling of loss, abstract though it might be, coupled with not having the space to talk about their feelings, can be really tough for children of all ages. In the midst of India’s COVID-19 catastrophe, my social media timeline and family WhatsApp groups were filled every day with the deaths of people, friends and family, and I kept thinking of a generation of children who’ll grow up without ever knowing their grandparents. A whole diaspora will now have to talk to their children about the death of a loved one many thousands of miles away – those grandparents, uncles and aunts that children have only ever met over Zoom or FaceTime, through tiny digital squares. Often, children make sense of the permanence of death only as they start missing the person lost to them. This is especially hard when they aren’t directly aware of an adult being gone. The distances between us, the loss of people who aren’t seen on a regular basis is difficult to explain and comprehend because the notion of ‘missing’ is impossible when the person had already been missing from the child’s life.
It’s clear that children have the ability to understand death, especially from a biological perspective. This is universal. But it’s also clear that children’s emotional maturity depends on their environment and their religious or spiritual beliefs. This is not universal.
Children brought up with beliefs about an afterlife, for example , might believe that bodily and mental functions continue after death, and that a person keeps on living in some way. This can be comforting to children in confronting their own mortality. The Vezo people of rural Madagascar believe that, while the bodily functions cease, some of the mental functions such as knowing and remembering can continue. A 2010 study among the Vezo showed that even five-year-old children already had a good understanding of the biological basis of death as cessation. They’re present when animals are slaughtered, are expected to attend funerals and wakes, and are obliged to look at their dead parents to ‘register’ the fact that they will never see them again. By the age of 12, these children have already started developing a robust dualistic notion of death where biological and spiritual dimensions stand together.
Given the present absence of rituals and large family gatherings, maybe we need more magical realism
A child’s understanding of death is shaped to a large extent through the conversations an adult is willing to undertake with them, to give them space to talk through their questions and help them understand that there can be more than one explanation of what happens to a person when they die. Such conversations can help children absorb that, even as the biological functions cease, it’s possible to believe in a life after death, or that spiritual beliefs can align with the scientific model of death.
‘Maybe they go to the Moon. Do you think Naanaa has gone to the Moon?’
I am noncommittal even though I would like to believe that, yes, maybe my father has gone to the Moon, looking down at us, you know.
‘How did he get to the Moon? Did he go on a special rocket? Who drives this rocket?’
The other pitches in: ‘Maybe there is a pilot you know.’
I let them figure it out between themselves. It seems easier this way. I stay quiet hoping they’ll fall asleep. I lie there in the dark churning and tying all the loose ends across the generations, these twisted strands of DNA like the red mauli string on my wrist from the puja we did for my father in India on the 10th day of his death, the thread going around and around like the love we carry for each other, even when we don’t, even when it’s not spoken. I take a deep breath, wondering whether this is just a fantasy, or whether the key to my grief lies in this wishful magical thinking, this magical world they have conjured up. And, even as I believe that I’m helping my children understand the notion of death, knowing full well now how crucial it is to their healthy development, it dawns on me that perhaps their questions are helping me deal with my grief and loss even more, to talk through it in a way that’s often not possible with the other adults around me.
I am reminded of the US psychologist Alison Gopnik who said that children’s minds are tuned to learn and, as we grow older as adults, we start taking so much for granted. And when we take things for granted, we find it difficult to unlearn what we already know and ask the right questions. In my conversations with my children, there’s the possibility of magic and fantasy, of giving space to an alternative world where my father might still exist. Within this space, my own questions about death don’t seem as irrelevant, or irreverent. In their questions, I’m beginning to see how little I’ve asked of myself and others around me to help me through this process of grief, how much I’ve tried to focus on it all being OK, even when, deep down, it really hasn’t been.
Given the present absence of rituals, of extended funerary practices and mourning periods, and large family gatherings, maybe we need more magical realism and storytelling. Maybe a magic rocket and a trip to the Moon is the answer for now. Maybe in trying to deal with death and loss, rather than explaining away the problem in a pragmatic, scientific manner, a childlike fascination and curiosity about death (and life) should be one of the steps we take. Perhaps that is the answer.
To read more on parenting, childhood and death, visit Psyche , a digital magazine from Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophical understanding and the arts.
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