The ultimate I’m-sorry-you-had-to-see-that moment (that’s a cliché, and make no mistake). Okay, that was a joke, but still: traumatic events are part of life. In being so, they also inhabit the realm of literature, and need to be dealt with.
I’ll be blunt: writing about traumatic events is one of the hardest writing techniques known to man. It’s hard to interpose yourself into an already tough situation, and, even tougher, you need to synthesize a reaction. Worst of all, the threat of being “sappy” is ever-present.
Sappiness is like a cheap sadness knockoff. As traumatic events are usually sad, the writer tries to replicate what they think that sadness is like. Usually, however, they fail to take a few things into consideration when writing, so it doesn’t actually end up making that much sense. Instead it becomes like a truncated, false, embarrassing way of looking at an event that is intended to be properly sad.
I’m going to say this first and foremost: do NOT be sappy. Most people have a “sappy” meter that warns them when the story spills from realistic in a sense to embarrassingly ridiculous. Soap operas are proverbially ridiculed for a reason: they’re sappy. Never, EVER fall into the Sappy Trap. But I’m sure you won’t, nor will you try to. Remember, only immature writers do this. Be more mature than those who don’t read articles on The Writer’s Rack.
Rewriting may be necessary when aiming for perfection here. While most of your content will be written the first time, key parts will almost always need to be changed. Try to keep most of the original essence in the final work, so no total rewriting. Just quick, on-the-spot changes.
But first, for the initial writing: you need to imagine this as a MOVIE scene first. Not a video, or in real life: like a motion picture that you see in the theater. So many people don’t KNOW what real grief is like. While many do, many do not. And this isn’t REAL grief, what’s happening in your story, either.
So the goal is to imagine the scene like you’re watching it as a movie, because a movie is very persuasive. You don’t have to THINK to watch a movie, but you have to do so to read a book. So first, imagine what the scene will look like as a movie. This technique can be used on any scene in writing, but is especially helpful with this.
Once you’ve got the whole thing mentally mapped, use the most descriptive adjectives you can. Not necessarily the most colorful per se, but the most descriptive. The most honest. The most accurate. What would stand out to you as you take the reader through this scene? If something comes to mind, tell it.
Some people like to describe a traumatic event as snapshots in time. This is a useful technique (I recommended this for writing battle scenes) and you can use this here if you want. Or even, in slow motion. Using the words “in slow motion” can have a profound effect on the reader.
One of the most important things to stress is the longevity. Usually, you want to keep fight scenes short, but traumatic sequences need to be long. Whether you do this by describing it through snapshots, or through slow motion, or even in real time, it doesn’t matter as much.
The reason why traumatic sequences have to be long is that it’s likely to be long for the person to whom it is happening. Since you usually follow the center of the action (the hero), then you have to see the traumatic sequence from the victim’s stance. Remember, the traumatic experience is only so because it is considered that way by the person to which it is happening.
If you have all of these elements, tell the truth. Sappiness only occurs when the sadness seems false or anachronistic. If it seems honestly like the hero’s true reaction, then the reader will appreciate your handling of the situation. Traumatic events are very volatile and easy to spoil, so don’t.
Good luck, and happy writing!