One of the central motifs in "The Management of Grief" is grieving. For the main character, Shaila Bhave, grief is both an expression of sorrow and love, and a way of coming into self knowledge. This process is intimately connected to place. Her life as an immigrant in Canada in a way is not a new life; she is still bound by the expectations of her culture, bonds that only begin to break in the aftermath of the horrific airline disaster that claims the lives of her husband and children.
Bhave's journey from Toronto to India and back mirrors her internal journey through the stages of grief. Toronto, where they first hear the news, is a claustrophic environment. Bhave cannot bring herself to express the grief she really feels, as can be seen when she is interviewed by the social worker, who commends her for her calmness. Bhave says that she wishes she could not be calm. In fact, she says, her calmness makes her feel like "a freak."
Later, after they travel to Ireland to identify bodies, Bhave finds a place that is more welcoming:
"The Irish are not shy; they rush to me and give me hugs and some are crying. I cannot imagine reactions like that on the streets of Toronto. Just strangers, and I am touched. Some carry flowers with them and give them to any Indian they see."
The Irish arrange a trip for them to the shore, where they can be close to their dead loved ones. They find comfort imagining that they might still be alive, speaking about their children in the present tense. They float remembrances on the water, in the hopes that maybe they will reach their loved ones somehow. Bhave floats a poem to her dead husband, telling him how much she loves him.
After Ireland, Bhave travels with the coffins to India. There she is transformed again: "In India, I become, once again, an only child of rich, ailing parents." Her life in Toronto, her family and husband, fade away as she is forced back into the role of daughter, and the spectre of returning to Canada, only with a new husband from an arranged marriage, hangs over her. Bhave is "trapped between two modes of knowledge. At thirty-six, I am too old to start over and too young to give up. Like my husband’s spirit, I flutter between worlds."
While travelling in the Himalayas, at a temple, Bhave has a final mourning experience, and her husband's spirit descends to her:
My husband takes my hands in his. You’re beautiful, he starts. Then, What are you doing here? Shall I stay? I ask. He only smiles, but already the image is fading. You must finish alone what we started together. No seaweed wreathes his mouth. He speaks too fast, just as he used to when we were an envied family in our pink split-level. He is gone.
In this place, Bhave begins to find a kind of closure and acceptance. She begins to understand her place in the world, independent of her identity as a wife or as a daughter. She returns to Toronto, to help others, a final expression of her grief.