What is the “Right” Amount of Grief?

Ordinary Grace

Ordinary Grace, a novel by William Kent Krueger, 2013 .  Atria/Simon & Schuster

 “He who learns must suffer.  And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, fails drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”  -Aeschylus (quoted in Ordinary Grace)

Semi-Spoiler Alert:  In this post, I will not reveal “whodunit,” but I will reveal one of the characters who is found dead in the middle of the novel.

In the early 1960s in New Bremen, a small town in Minnesota, nothing much ever happened—at least most of the time.   During one hot summer, however, several people died unexpectedly, some of them from foul play.   We learn about this town and these deaths in the novel Ordinary Grace, told from the perspective of 13-year old Frank Drum.  Frank is the son of Nathan, a preacher whose faith in God is unshakeable, and Ruth, a restless woman who wants more than her small-town life can give her.  Frank has a younger brother, Jake, and an older sister, Ariel. As the novel unfolds we learn more about the dynamics of this family and their interactions with other members of the small community.

Minnesota author William Kent Krueger is perhaps best-known for his mystery novels featuring detective Cork O’Connor, most of which are set in northern Minnesota.   Writing about murder, then, is nothing new to him.  However, Ordinary Grace is not a crime or mystery novel.   Figuring out who is responsible for the various deaths that occur this summer is only part of what this novel is about.  It is, more importantly, about how survivors respond to loss and how grief affects us all differently.

William Kent Krueger by Tony Nelson
William Kent Krueger by Tony Nelson

This question of loss comes to the fore midway through the novel when we find out that one of the people found dead is Ariel, the beloved daughter of Nathan and Ariel.   It is one thing for a pastor to minister to other people who are suffering.  It is quite another thing when this pastor has to grapple with his own devastating loss.   As Nathan and his wife attempt to come to terms with the murder of their daughter, readers see how differently the husband and wife respond to their loss.  Their reactions are so different, in fact, that their marriage nearly founders upon the rocks of their grief.

Despite the horror of losing his young daughter, Nathan never for a moment falters in his Christian faith.  This is not to say that he does not grieve for Ariel; of course he does.  His soul, however, is not tormented to anywhere near the extent his wife’s is.  Far from being comforted by her husband’s faith, she is, in fact, enraged by it.

In one scene, for example, Ruth expresses her despair to Frank by saying, “There is no God to care about us.  We’ve got only ourselves and each other. . . . But your father, Frankie, he cares more about God than he does about us.  And to me that’s like saying he cares more about the air and I hate him for that.”  (224)

This scene, I think, beautifully encapsulates one of the core conflicts of this book.  Not only does Ruth not share her husband’s faith in God, she actively resents it.  She cannot understand why Nathan is not as shattered and full of rage as she is.  It appears to her that he simply does not love her or their child as much as he should.  She mistakes spiritual peace for indifference.

I found Krueger’s portrayal of a family’s grief and their struggles with faith profound and moving.  Overall, I found the novel compulsively readable as well as emotionally satisfying and I would highly recommend it to others.  One element of the novel, though struck me as false:  the quickness with which Ruth recovers her equanimity.  One day she is raging with fury and even leaves her husband because he says the word “God” too much.  Then, already a day after her beloved daughter’s funeral, her emotional fragility is gone and she says, “It hurts terribly, Emil.  Maybe it always will.  But I’ve survived and I believe I’ll be all right.”

This scene strikes me as unrealistic, happening just a few days (possibly a week?) after the child in whom she had invested all her hopes for the future is taken away by a murderer.   Krueger’s portrayal of her earlier fragility and rage seem believable, but this “recovery” strikes me as coming much too soon.  Yes, the narrator tells us he does find her crying occasionally in the next few months, but still that does not seem like enough to me for a parent who has lost their child far ahead of their time.

But maybe I am wrong.  Maybe people CAN recover more quickly than I expect them to.  This discussion reminds me last season of “Downton Abbey,” in which Lady Mary was grieving from the sudden loss of her husband.  The family “allowed” her six months to grieve.  After that, she was expected to “get on with living.”  Yes, I know, “Downton Abbey” is not real life.  But I do see this reaction in the broader society as well.  It seems that we get the message that if we are to grieve, we should get it done as quickly as possible and we shouldn’t make too much of a spectacle of ourselves.   This strikes me as being more about the needs of the non-grievers than about the needs of the grievers.   It seems that others simply do not want to be bothered too much with other people’s pain.  But perhaps I am off-base here.

What do you think?  Do you think we are “supposed” to grieve for a set amount of time?  If so, how much is the “right” amount?


Author: DebraB

I am a Professor of English at Concordia University-St. Paul. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research interests include American literature, contemporary literature, Middle Eastern literature, African literature and feminist theory.

10 thoughts on “What is the “Right” Amount of Grief?”

  1. There are no rules or limits on grief. It is entirely personal. My wife grieved for her brother who was a musician who died as a college junior from leukemia. Every time she heard “Free Bird” she would break into tears, this lasting about five or six years. Eventually, she coped with it better. I think birthdays, mother’s days, or music bring out memories of the grief, even though a person is over the person’s passing.

    1. I agree with you and others who say there is no “rule” on grief. Having said that, when I hear stories of people who remarry within a year (or less) of their spouse dying, I am a bit shocked. if I die before my husband, I hope it would take him some time before marries someone else!

      1. Debra, did you ever see the movie “Must Love Dogs.” Christopher Plummer plays the Dad who is dating several women a few years after his wife’s death. Diane Lane’s character asks why he is looking for love. He said, “I’m not. I have had the love of my life and no one can replace your mother. I am just out their tap dancing as fast as I can so I don’t miss her so much.” That line has always stuck with me. I would hope my wife would find someone after I am gone, but like you, I would like to be a little colder in the ground. Now, isn’t this a nice thought. Have a great weekend. BTG

  2. As someone very unlikely to read the book, and who not too long ago had a very strong and unsuspected grief time, that there is no “grief rule”. Grief comes in many shapes and sizes and can be for much more than a person. What counts according to me after my experience is that grief should be appropriate for the loss and this is not always easy. Debra you posted I believe a clip of a professional grief employment trial, something I found extraordinary, funny and sad and more.. But it is not what goes on outside but what happens inside that really matters, and that can be a wound struck from so unsparing an angle as to leave the sufferer healing for years.

    1. I totally agree with you, Steve. I hope people respected your need to grieve and didn’t try to force you to “get over it” when you weren’t ready. I think you may have been referring to the post I did a while ago on “professional mourners.” They are people (strangers) you employ to come to your funeral (or that of a loved one) to wail and grieve ostentatiously. Very strange concept!

  3. I loved this book and have recommended it a lot. I have a copy I ordered from B & N and I want to re-read it. I do not recall the pacing of the grief of the mother right now. I agree that there is this artificial time limit placed on grieving sometimes. I will be more aware when I re-read the book. I would say that it would be too soon for her to resolve her feelings as you describe it. I believe she had left her husband for a time. What I loved about the book was the depiction of the relationship between Frank and his brother. I also loved how the character Frank struggles through how to handle different problems and then comes to a higher ground and resolution. Like when he struggles with reporting who he believes to be the murderer.

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