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?

My Son is a Murderer (Maybe): William Landay, “Defending Jacob”


I am not spoiling the plot in my discussion below. The events I mention occur early in the novel.

I have a confession to make. I am a book snob. The vast majority of novels I read are classified as “literary fiction” or “classics” or “books that are supposed to be good for you but are actually boring, confusing, and/or depressing.” Occasionally, I read mystery novels set in foreign countries just for fun, but I don’t expect anything from them behind light entertainment and some cool references to exotic places.

Therefore, when one of my book clubs picked William Landay’s Defending Jacob to read, I wasn’t expecting much. I was wrong. Defending Jacob, written by a former district attorney, is indeed a fast-paced crime thriller and a total page-turner. But it is much more than that. It is also a thoughtful, probing exploration of love, family, responsibility, and self-deception. It made me think and it made me feel. I highly recommend it, not only for crime thriller fans, but also for book snobs like myself.

Imagine you and your spouse are good, law-abiding, tax-paying, solid citizens who have done everything right. You are a district attorney whose career is devoted to prosecuting criminals so that you can keep your community safe. You and your spouse devoted your lives to raising a child lovingly, in a good “child-friendly” suburb. Family is everything to you.

Then one day, your 14-year old child is accused of murdering a classmate. What do you do? This scenario is the premise of Defending Jacob. While the legal drama is part of the plot, the most interesting thread to me is the effect the accusation has on the family.   Andy Barber, the father and narrator of the story, responds with a categorical “no.” No, my son did not commit a crime. He is innocent. Someone else did it. End of story. This is his position and he never wavers from it.

His wife, Laurie, has a different reaction. While she mostly believes her son did not do it, she has nagging doubts. She starts probing in their past, remembering the times Jacob behaved badly as a child and wonders if those were signs of something deeply wrong. Andy thinks she is being ridiculous. Jacob was just being a normal boy. Laurie keeps asking questions and is not reassured by the answers. What if Jacob DID do it? Wouldn’t that mean they as parents were responsible in some way? The agony of grappling with these questions derails Laurie long before the trial concludes. We know that no matter what the outcome of the trial is, she—and their family—will never be the same.

The questions that torment Laurie still reverberate in my mind days after reading this novel, and I don’t even have children.

What about you? How would you react if your beloved child were accused of a heinous crime? Would you be an Andy or a Laurie? What is the right response?