The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen
The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen It is always a pleasure when a new novel by a writer whose earlier work I have enjoyed comes into the store. When The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen arrived I eagerly picked it up to read – and liked it as much as her earlier novels, Heat Lightning and House Lights. And, just as the author herself has matured, so has her writing, and her characters, where she earlier wrote about young girls and teenagers she is now writing about a married couple and their children.
The Grief of Others explores the progress of grief as a family mourns the death of a new born baby, and over the course of a year and a half, after being torn apart by grief, begins to come together again. We meet the Ryries family, Ricky and John, their 13 year old son Paul, and their 9 year old daughter, Biscuit. The previous spring Ricky gave birth to a baby boy who died within days, leaving her devastated, and her family hardly knowing how to mourn for a baby who never came home.
Biscuit with the help of an understanding children’s librarian is reading about death rituals from around the world, making her best attempt to perform some of them, often skipping school, finding her own way of acknowledging the baby’s life and death.
Paul is a seventh grade student, a chubby, pimply teenager – bullied by his classmates, his only friend a recent Haitian immigrant, a boy who is also an outsider. It is heartbreaking to read about the emotional pain and fear this bullying causes to a boy already so damaged by his grief. Paul is so alone we fear for him, with his parents unable, at this time, to help themselves let alone their children.
The novel also re-visits a theme from her previous novel, House Lights, with the character of Jess, a young woman struggling to find her own place in the adult world. She claims a place in this struggling family bringing complications of her own into their lives.
This is a family in crisis – but still a family, once cohesive and loving, despite some earlier conflict between the parents - one that we hope will survive the tragedy of the death of their child.
A marriage begins with love and idealism – you buy a house, start a family, and life happens. Good things and bad things. Maybe there are some families that never experience the tragedy of an untimely death, or infidelity, or childhood illness – but I doubt there are many. This novel examines a marriage under stress – how husband or wife, in grief, might find it so much easier to walk away from their distraught spouse, to find someone new, someone seemingly uncluttered, perhaps a less difficult person.
We see Ricky standing in front of her home, remembering the day she and John first saw this house, it’s welcoming porch. The house they bought, taking a chance that they could make it all work, that they could raise a family here – so many dreams, so many years ago. So much has happened in their lives since then. Now, more than a year since the baby’s death, as she looks at the lights in the windows, “desolation swept through her”. Will her marriage survive, will she and John be able to trust each other again, will they ever be able to be that couple that first looked at this house and knew they had to make it their home?
You’ll have to read The Grief of Others to find out.