This novel examines that varying affects that grief can have on different members of the same family. John and Ricky Ryrie’s son is born with anencephaly, meaning that he is missing a portion of his skull and his brain, and he lives for just 58 hours. The loss understandably puts a strain on their marriage as they go about mourning in their own ways and as they attempt to manage how their other children are dealing with it. Fourteen-year-old Paul suffers in silence as he is bullied at school, and ten-year-old Biscuit begins to skip school and becomes obsessed with farewell rituals. Add on top of this the sudden reappearance of Jess, John’s adult daughter from a high school fling, unaware of her father’s recent loss, and looking for an emotional support system after a surprise pregnancy puts strains on her own parental relationships.
As the story goes on, secrets between John and Ricky are revealed - chiefly that Ricky knew of the anencephaly five months into her pregnancy and decided to carry the child to term without telling anyone else, including John.
There’s a lot of emotionally turbulent material in this story – and that’s totally to be expected from a novel called The Grief of Others
- but something about it didn’t resonate with me the way I hoped it would. The opening scene, in which Ricky refuses to let anyone else hold her precious newborn for the duration of his brief life, is heartbreaking. Cohen’s language is gorgeous; her eye for details is sharp. Somehow, though, she loses that as she delves into the meat of her story. I want to say that it was overwritten, but I don’t think that’s an accurate word. It’s more like it was full of unnecessary details that did little to strengthen the emotional core of the story. I appreciated how Cohen attempted to show that each member of the family had his or her own way of dealing with grief, and the characters were all wonderfully unique and fleshed-out, but I could never truly connect with them. I think part of it was that I really didn’t understand Ricky’s motivation. I just felt that the responses to loss were well-examined, but there was little effort to genuinely understand where the responses came from.