What effects does Susie's death have on her family?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Alice Sebold'sThe Lovely Bonescould be read as a study in transformation caused by tragedy. The novel relates in first person the death and the afterlife of the narrator, 14-year old Susie Salmon; a girl who is raped and murdered brutally by a sociopath neighbor.

The effects of her death are quite devastating in her once, seemingly-functional family. Hence, Susie's death serves as the catalyst that changes each family member and separates the family unit either psychologically or physically.

Jack Salmon, Susie's father, is perhaps the most affected in the family. This is because he is the least able to let go of the memory of Susie. He is eventually the only one who will voice the words that nobody admits to say:

Last night it had been my father who had finally said it, ‘She’s never coming home.’ A clear and easy piece of truth that everyone who had ever known me had accepted. But he needed to say it, and she needed to hear him say it.

But during the first part of the eight years that the story runs, rather than learning to cope and let go, he creates an atmosphere where Susie's role in the family is meant to remain intact. He also becomes obsessed with catching the killer, but suffers a devastating setback by the flawed investigation of the murder. Moreover, he also endures an accidental beating, and survives a heart-attack, as part of his quest to get Mr. Harvey.

Even more sadly for Jack, his wife Abigail's own grief leads her to abandon the family in order to find herself in isolation.Even Susie understands her mother's reaction. She loves her mother, but she understands that her mother's personal hopes and dreams were set back when she became a mother. Now that she loses her daughter, she wonders what is the purpose of her life.

She had a stare that stretched to infinity. She was, in that moment, not my motherbut something separate from me.

She ends up in California doing menial jobs just for the fact of trying to cope. Her absence makes Jack become both mother and father figure, which leads him to become too overprotective of his other two children, Lindsey and Buckley.

Lindsey is caught by the murder during her identity-building years of pre-adolescence. She is saddened and sickened by her sister's death, but she is also trying to separate herself from the idea that she a "dead girl's sister". She is a straightforward and healthy girl whose composure, as well as her boyfriend, allow her to grow out of the grief in a healthy way. She eventually almost becomes Harvey's victim as well.

At fourteen, my sister sailed away from me into a place I’d never been. In the walls of my sex there was horror and blood, in the walls of hers there were windows

Buckley, the youngest, develops anger issues. After all, he is abandoned by his mother, his father changes, his sister is dead and his living sister is no longer the same. He begins to pretend to see Susie. This is the way that he personally copes with it.

Years later, however, after the grief has quit gnawing ever so deeply in their psyches, Susie's death will again become catalyst of unity and transformation within a family front that has been dented by the horrors of society and crime. Abigail returns and everyone understands, and somewhat accepts, that changes are inevitable. Susie's life will always have a reason to be. Like Susie says,

These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence [...] The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life.

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The Lovely Bones

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