Instead of having a typical villain, the antagonists of "The Management of Grief" are all abstract. Cultures, stereotypes, and expectations all plague the protagonist, Mrs. Shaila Bhave, as she learns of and attempts to cope with the loss of her husband and sons in a politically-motivated airplane bombing.
One such antagonizing force comes from the title: the expectation that grief is something to be managed and overcome by a strong-willed survivor. Even though Shaila seems just the type to recover most easily (she is identified as one of the survivors who took the news in the "best" way), she finds herself completely passive in the face of her grief. Rather than being able to manage and actively work her way through her grief, she can only experience it, allowing herself to be pulled along the necessary steps of grief without any corresponding feeling of recovery. This expectation is exemplified in the character of social worker Judith Templeton and her expectations for how the survivors might go about managing their grief. She describes the widowed women as "hysterical" and "a real mess," demonstrating her lack of true empathy and understanding of their loss and cultural reaction to it, as discussed below.
Another antagonizing force is the clash of Indian and Canadian cultures. As Indians living in Canada during the tragedy, many of the survivors have felt this clash of cultures for a long time, and characters like Shaila and Kusum have felts their children moving further away from them and their roots and further towards Western culture, as shown with Kusum's argument with her Westernized daughter, Pam. However, Shaila herself feels more of this cross-cultural push and pull after the tragedy. While Westerners like Judith Templeton are impressed with Shaila's calm acceptance of the tragedy, Shaila points out that her fellow Indians expect her to mourn loudly and publicly and the calm she feels is unnerving to her. At the same time, however, she mourns the fact that upper class Indian expectations kept her from telling her husband she loved him or speaking his first name. An Indian living in a Western world, Shaila is challenged by both cultures in the face of this tragedy.
A third "antagonizing force" is the Sikh religion and culture. Even though Shaila was brought up in a progressive household and was taught not to generalize and stereotype others (especially after experiencing this herself in the West), she still cannot help but blame Sikhs for the death of her husband and sons. She says, "I stiffen now at the sight of beards and turbans,’’ referring to the dress and hairstyle of Sikh men. This antagonism is not only Shaila vs. Sikhs, but Shaila vs. a part of her that wants to simplify the tragedy by blaming it on an easily-identifiable group of people. This conflict within herself is one of the most relevant in our post 9/11 world.