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?

Debra Goes Mild with Cheryl Strayed

"Wild"
“Wild”

In the past couple of weeks, I have read the memoir “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and seen the movie version of it starring Reese Witherspoon.  My reaction to both the book and the movie was a constant oscillation between “Strayed is amazing!” and “Strayed is batshit crazy!”

Strayed’s memoir is about a period in her early twenties after her mother died suddenly of cancer at the age of 45.  Reeling with grief, Strayed’s life started to unravel with her self-destructive behavior.  She became promiscuous, used heroin, and divorced her kind and loving husband while on her downward spiral.

Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed

One day, Ms. Strayed, who had never done an overnight hiking trip in her life, decided it would be a good idea to hike 1000 or so miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself.  “Wild” is her account of both her downward spiral and the hiking trip that helped her recover from her grief.

“Wild” is not a hiking guide or a self-help book.  It is a memoir, a work of literature.  Strayed writes beautifully and honestly about the beauty of the landscape she traversed, but also, frequently about the physical pain she endured.  Her backpack, which she affectionately called “Monster,” was way, way too heavy for her.  Not only was it difficult to walk with such a burden on her back, but it left her seriously bruised and blistered.  Even worse were her feet.  I don’t know if this is common for long-distance hikers, but her feet were in constant agony and she lost six toenails by the end of the trip.

Nonetheless, her book was inspiring to me.  I have done a little bit of hiking I my life, but not a great deal.  And I certainly do not enjoy pain.  But what she wrote about the healing effects of strenuous outdoor activity makes sense to me:

“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back.  And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it.  That I could bear the unbearable.  These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm.  That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding.  It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away.  By the end of that second week, I realized that since I’d begun my hike, I hadn’t shed a single tear.” (92)

Strayed suggests that there is something about strenuous effort or—to be more blunt—physical pain in the wilderness that can make a person stronger, not just physically, but also emotionally.  Whereas heroin and sex were attempts to get outside of herself, Strayed realized on her hike that she need to stay inside herself in order to heal.

“But walking along a path I carved myself. . . was the opposite of using heroin. . . Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something.  That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me.  Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”

So I am now inspired by Strayed to experience more of the strenuous outdoor life.  Yet, I still think hiking 1100 miles by oneself is crazy.  I’m not interested in doing anything like that.  However, I would like to get out into nature more often than I normally do.  So here is my compromise, my very Mild response to Strayed’s “Wild” adventure.

Strayed hiked a total of approximately 1100 miles.  My goal is to do 1100 miles this summer, by combining biking and hiking.  I pledge to hike a total of 100 miles and bike a total of 1000 miles this year.  I am no Cheryl Strayed, so these miles will be cumulative, not all at once.

I live in Minnesota, so I can’t really get outside until probably late April, when the snow melts and the temperatures are regularly above freezing.  Because of the generally crappy climate I live in, I henceforth declare the spinning classes can count toward my mileage.

I will update my blog periodically about my progress, so stay tuned!