The Management of Grief

by Bharati Mukherjee

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The Journey Structure in "The Management of Grief"

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1801

Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey, travels for over ten years trying to get home to his family and his community. When, at the end of the book, he finds his way home, it is the end of a long journey that lasted many years and confronted Odysseus with myriad challenges and threats. In this classic example of a journey story, he and the men on his ship are tempted by beauty, captured by a Cyclops, and whirled around an angry and treacherous sea. All of this makes for a good story, but behind the narrative there lies a complex journey structure, a structure critics such as Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, have analyzed thoroughly and applied to literature, folklore, and religious narratives. This structure is also called the journey myth, since myth originally meant story or structure. Because the journey myth occurs so frequently in literary texts, it is a useful tool for comparing and analyzing them.

The main structure of Mukherjee's story ‘‘The Management of Grief’’ is a journey taken by the protagonist, Shaila Bhave. Put simply, in the beginning of the story she is in Canada. She goes away. She comes back, and the story ends with her in Canada. But in between, something has changed. A numb calm and a somber mood permeate her world before she leaves; she seems to be without will, passive, irresolute. At the end of the story, after her journey, the mood is calm, but more resolute, not at all numb. She still waits, but with open expectation, confident that she is doing the right thing and that she has made some sense of the confusion and pain caused by the death of her husband and two sons. She might not yet be happy or stable, but Shaila is certainly better off emotionally. All journeys are to different extents successes or failures, and Shaila's seems to have been a success.

In a typical journey story, such as The Odyssey, a hero leaves his home with a clear purpose, even if it is not clear how he will achieve that purpose. When Odysseus leaves, it is to win a war with the Trojans. Likewise, when the knights of King Arthur's court leave Camelot, it is to find the Holy Grail. Shaila, as heroine, has the much darker task of going to Ireland to try to identify the bodies of her husband and sons. It is hard to imagine a successful journey for her. While Odysseus can return from the war victorious, and the knights might return with the Holy Grail, returning with the bodies of dead loved ones cannot carry the same sense of triumph. The extension of Shaila's trip beyond Ireland to India, however, reveals a deeper purpose behind the journey. There she will spend time with family and loved ones to help her cope with her loss. The title of the story emphasizes this need, which becomes the chief goal of Shaila's journey: how should she manage her grief?

This journey structure is further complicated in the story by the timing of Shaila's successes in this goal. While the Trojan War is won abroad, and the Holy Grail is found elsewhere than Camelot, Shaila's
success with managing her grief seems to come after her journey is over. She has two moments of triumph at home in Canada. The first comes when she realizes her strength and abandons Judith Templeton, the pushy social worker. In doing so, Shaila also abandons the system of grief management that Judith would impose on her and the other Indo-Canadians. In most journey myths, the hero—in this case the heroine—must blaze his or her own path to the goal, and in quitting Judith's path, Shaila frees herself for her second triumph, the final hearing of her family's voices saying her "time has come," and the subsequent beginning of her new "voyage" on her own.

Yet while she is abroad, Shaila finds the sources of strength that she will later call on. The first such source comes in the character of Dr. Ranganathan. Judith preaches acceptance of grief. Kusum and her swami call the depression that accompanies grief selfish. But Dr. Ranganathan confirms in Shaila hope in the face of grief. This hope soothes her and gives her a positive emotion on which to focus. Shaila will continue to build off of it—even as she transforms it—throughout the story. Dr. Ranganathan's words—"It's a parent's duty to hope"—echo in Shaila's mind as she, with Judith, drives away from the elderly Sikh couple who refused to accept Judith's help. When Shaila sees that she shares this conviction of hope with the couple, she believes it to be part of "our culture." Upon this realization, Shaila sees that Judith's impatience with what she calls "stubbornness and ignorance" reveal Judith's character and her implicit rejection of Shaila's own ways. This prompts her rejection of Judith and of Shaila's own complicity in Judith's project.

Shaila receives other empowerment on her journey in the form of her family. Her hope is rewarded for, in a sense, her family lives and supports her. She has the vision of Vikram in India, and back home in Canada she says "my family surrounds me" though "they've changed shapes." She clings to the "voices and the shapes and the nights filled with visions." In this spirit of hope, she waits and listens and prays, and receives the final communication from her family expressing their faith in her.

If what she learned from Dr. Ranganathan provided her first source of power, the vision of Vikram offers a second. In the vision, Vikram gives Shaila what she needs most: a sense of will and a purpose. "What are you doing here?" he asks, and Shaila does not know at this point. "You must finish alone what we started together," he tells her. Both the fact that Shaila has this experience in a village temple in the Himalayas and that Vikram appears in a scene full of Hindu imagery emphasize Shaila's cultural roots. She seems to need a return to them to regain her bearings in life. Also, the episode feeds Shaila's general sense of hope and brings the mood of hope back into the story since what she and Vikram "started together," namely moving "halfway around the world" and starting over, was an immensely hopeful project. Shaila returns to Canada with this mood which is essential to her growth there.

The final paragraph adds another complication to the journey structure of the story, for it takes the narrative a step beyond the typical elements of the journey myth. The basic elements are there—leaving home for a journey which ends on the return home—but here, after the return, Shaila begins a new journey, prompted not by the summons of the morgue, as in the beginning of the story, but by the pleas of her family who urge her to go. "I do not know where this voyage I have begun will end. I do not know which direction I will take. I dropped the package on a part bench and started walking." So the story ends, and so Shaila's journeys are layered: the journey she makes in "The Management of
Grief" is necessary for her to continue the larger journey she began before this story began. The proper management of her grief turns out to be an obstacle in that larger journey, a journey that could have failed had Shaila remained in India rather than returned to Canada. Even if she had learned to manage her grief there, and thus succeeded in that challenge, she would have failed in the bigger journey that frames "The Management of Grief."

With that last paragraph, then, Mukherjee draws attention back to the bigger story she, as an immigrant writer, wants to tell through her writing, namely, the story of the challenges immigrants face and the tools they have for overcoming those obstacles. Other journeys in "The Management of Grief" help define the success of this immigrant, for they show other characters succeeding or failing in various degrees. Since Shaila returns to the West, resisting the temptation to stay in India, she establishes the West as her home within the structure of the journey myth. On the other hand, because Kusum forsakes what she and her husband started in the West, Kusum seems to fail. Her journey begins in her home country of India, takes her and her husband to the house across the street from Shaila, but ends back in India, thus establishing India as her home, and her journey abroad as something of a failure.

Kusum's daughter Pam fails in a different way than her mother. She adopts the culture of the West wholesale, never even venturing far from her home in Canada, and in so doing she forsakes the strength offered her by her deeper heritage. Dr. Ranganathan, on the other hand, meets with a success similar to Shaila's, and this understanding is facilitated by their friendship, while at the same time it solidifies and deepens that friendship. Shaila and Dr. Ranganathan are the beginning of a new community founded on the hopes embodied in the West as well as a faithfulness to the meaningful relationships of the past.

As Fakrum Alal points out in Bharati Mukherjee, ‘‘The Management of Grief’’ is unique among the stories of The Middleman and Other Stories, because it is the only one dealing with immigrants in Canada rather than in the United States or Central America. While Mukherjee's first book of stories, Darkness, dealt more with Canadian experiences, "The Management of Grief" is the last story Mukherjee has written about the experience of the immigrant in Canada. In this respect, it is a departure point for her, just as the end of the story—which is also the last page of The Middleman and Other Stories—is a departure point for Shaila. Jonathan Raban, in the New York Times Book Review, noted a common thread in the stories of The Middleman and Other Stories: "Every story ends on a new point of departure. People are last seen walking out through an open door, planning an escape, or suspended on the brink of a blissful sexual transport," wrote Raban. "For these birds of passage, America is a receding infinity of fresh beginnings; they keep aloft on luck and grace." Mukherjee seems to be saying that the start of Shaila's new journey at the end of the journey narrated in the "The Management of Grief" is typical of the immigrant experience.

Source: James Frazier, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Frazier teaches high-school English in Lytle, Texas, and has a master's degree in English from the University of Texas.

Themes of the Rational and Irrational in "The Management of Grief"

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1681

Mukherjee's short story "The Management of Grief" focuses on the character of Shaila Bhave, an East Indian immigrant to Toronto, Canada, whose husband and two sons have just died in a plane crash. The relatives of many of her friends and neighbors were also killed in the same crash. This story is concerned with the ways in which Mrs. Bhave, as well as those around her, deal with death. Throughout the story, rational versus irrational approaches to dealing with grief over their personal losses are contrasted. In addition, the culture gap between the Indian immigrants and the Canadian government
authorities assigned to help the survivors of the plane crash is also highlighted.

The story's title, "The Management of Grief," highlights the contradiction Mrs. Bhave feels between rational approaches to "managing" the process of grief and the irrational ways in which the survivors actually experience their mourning. The Canadian government represents the epitome of rationalism in assigning a social worker, Judith Templeton,"an appointee of the provincial government," to "manage" the survivors. In addition, the Canadian government demonstrates a lack of understanding of Indian culture as it affects the various ways in which the survivors grieve. Judith Templeton calls on Mrs. Bhave to help bridge the cultural gap between the government and the Indian immigrants. Templeton is specifically aware of the ways in which the government's rational approach to helping the survivors of the plane crash are lacking in terms of the cultural and emotional factors involved. Templeton tells Mrs. Bhave, "We have interpreters, but we don't always have the human touch, or maybe the right human touch." Templeton's inability to appreciate the ways in which the survivors grieve their losses is attributed to her rationalized textbook approach to "the management of grief." Mrs. Bhave presents this approach as dry and insensitive, leaving out the irrational ways in which each individual grieves in their own way: "'In the textbooks on grief management. . .there are stages to pass through: rejection, depression, acceptance, reconstruction.' She has compiled a chart and finds that six months after the tragedy, none of us still reject reality."

The surviving family members are sent to Ireland, where the plane crashed, in order to identify bodies. There, the authorities provide them with factual information in an attempt to make them feel better. Mrs. Bhave comments with skepticism that they seem to think this rational approach will be helpful to the survivors: "The police, the diplomats, they tell us things thinking that we're strong, that knowledge is helpful to the grieving and maybe it is." She, on the other hand, thinks that many of them do not find such rational information is helpful, that they "prefer ignorance, or their own versions." Dr. Ranganathan, one of the survivors who has lost a large family in the plane crash, seems to be among those who find comfort in the rational. He is himself a scientist whose career is based on rational thinking, an electrical engineer whose "work is famous around the world, something about the place where physics and electricity come together."

Mrs. Bhave notes that, in learning that the plane crashed in an area of shark-infested water, Dr. Ranganathan is able to accept the fact that the bodies may have been eaten by sharks by perceiving it in rational terms: "In his orderly mind, science brings understanding, it holds no terror. It is the shark's duty. For every deer there is a hunter, for every fish a fisherman."

By contrast, many of the survivors rely on irrational ways of "managing" their grief. Mrs. Bhave's friend Kusum turns to her swami, a religious mentor, for consolation and wisdom. Kusum thus deals with the death of her family in part by the wisdom of her swami, who attributes the tragedy to "fate." She tells Mrs. Bhave that,"we can't escape our fate. He says that all those people...were fated to die together off this beautiful bay." Mrs. Bhave herself, however, does not find the wisdom of a swami, or the notion of "fate," to be any comfort; she thinks to herself that, instead of a swami, "I have my Valium." Kusum eventually deals with the loss of her family by moving, on her swami's advice, to his ashram in Hardwar. She tells Mrs. Bhave that she is "pursuing inner peace," but Mrs. Bhave seems to be skeptical about the value of such a pursuit.

Dr. Ranganathan, although a scientist and a rationalist, also draws on spiritual conceptions in his experience of grief. Unlike some of the others, he cannot bring himself to sell his house, because his house has become for him a site of spiritual devotion: "The house is a temple, he says; the king-sized bed in the master bedroom is a shrine. He sleeps on a folding cot. A devotee."

Mrs. Bhave herself feels caught between a rational and an irrational perspective on the loss of her family. Her mother's mother had been excessively superstitious, thinking the fact that her husband had died of diabetes at the age of nineteen was a sign that she herself was "a harbinger of bad luck." As a result of this belief, Mrs. Bhave's grandmother had neglected her own daughter for a life of self-deprivation. In reaction against this unpleasant upbringing based on superstition, Mrs. Bhave's mother "grew up a rationalist," and both of her parents "abhor mindless mortification." Mrs. Bhave thus feels caught between the rationalism of her parents and the irrational thinking involved in "faith," spirituality and religion. As she explains, "The zamindar's daughter kept stubborn faith in Vedic rituals; my parents rebelled. I am 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 two worlds."

Mrs. Bhave does, while in Ireland, take comfort in the irrational hope that, because one of her boys is a champion swimmer, he must have survived the plane crash into the ocean and swum with his little brother to an island where they are still alive and await rescue. Because she clings to this hope, Mrs. Bhave does not want to identify her son among the photographs of recovered bodies. While spending six months with her parents in India after the crash, Mrs. Bhave is confronted with numerous offers of spiritual assistance in her grieving. She and her parents travel to "the holy spots" in India: "In Varanasi, Kalighat, Rishikesh, Hardwar, astrologers and palmists seek me out and for a fee offer me cosmic consolations." Mrs. Bhave, nonetheless, is uninterested in these spiritual or "cosmic" approaches to "managing" her grief. However, she unexpectedly has an "irrational" experience in "an abandoned temple in a tiny Himalayan village." She states that "as I make my offering of flowers and sweetmeats to the god of a tribe of animists, my husband descends to me." In this vision, her husband takes her hand, smiles, and tells her, "You must finish what we started." Because her mother "has no patience with ghosts, prophetic dreams, holy men, and cults," Mrs. Bhave lies to her about having experienced anything out of the ordinary in the temple. Back in Toronto, Mrs. Bhave finds that her incredible "calm" over the tragedy is in part due to the fact that she does not yet experience it as a loss: "How do I tell Judith Templeton that my family surrounds me, and that like creatures in epics, they've changed shapes?" Her sense that her husband and sons are still with her is so strong that "my days, even my nights, are thrilling."

The story culminates in a visit Mrs. Bhave makes as a translator for Judith Templeton to the home of an older Indian couple, newly arrived in Canada, whose adult sons were killed in the plane crash. In this situation, Mrs. Bhave becomes keenly aware that Judith Templeton's "management" approach to helping the grieving survivors of the crash is completely insensitive both to the cultural nuances of the Indian families, and to the irrational ways in which "we all grieve in our own way." The older couple seem to be in complete denial of the death of their sons, and Mrs. Bhave secretly understands this feeling; she thinks, "I want to say, my boys and my husband are with me too, more than ever." The older man sums up their resistance to the machine-like, rational,"management" approach of Mrs. Templeton through an indirect reference; because they have not left their sons' apartment or paid any bills, Judith Templeton explains to them, the water and electricity are going to be shut off; the old man's response is, "Who needs all this machinery?" This question symbolically expresses Mrs. Bhave's feeling that the "machinery" for "managing" grief, which the government has imposed upon the surviving families, is completely unhelpful to them in dealing with their personal losses. Upon leaving the apartment of the older couple, Mrs. Bhave, fed up with Judith Templeton and the Canadian government's attempt to rationalize the grieving process, spontaneously walks out on Judith Templeton in exasperation, and without explanation.

Mrs. Bhave is only able to move on with her life when the spiritual presence of her husband and sons leaves her. Toward the end of the story, she says, "The voices and the shapes and the nights filled with visions ended abruptly several weeks ago." Although not following the advice of a swami or any other organized religion, Mrs. Bhave makes sense of her experience of grief in her own way. She interprets the disappearance of these visions as "a sign." After one final vision of her family, Mrs. Bhave is able to genuinely begin her life again without them: "I heard the voices of my family one last time. Your time has come, they said. Go, be brave."

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, with a specialization in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.

Use of Distance in "Management of Grief"

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1755

Much of Bharati Mukherjee's fiction reflects her experiences in diverse cultures. She was born and reared in India, attended the University of Iowa, and then lived in Canada with her new husband. The couple returned to the United States, however, due to the racism Mukherjee faced in Canada. Her admirers are intrigued by the ways she works these unusual experiences into the lives of her characters as she depicts separation and confusion among differing cultures. In the short story "The Management of Grief," Bharati's main character is Shaila Bhave, a recently widowed Indian woman living in Canada. Shaila encounters separation and distance in many forms—familial, emotional, psychological, geographical, and cultural. What makes the story particularly interesting is that Mukherjee demonstrates the dynamic nature of distance. It is not fixed, which means that Shaila can expand and close various kinds of distances as she desires and as she is able. She is subject to changes that are beyond her control, such as the loss of her husband and sons in an airplane crash. But she discovers that, although the physical separation of her family has been forced on her, she can choose to maintain emotional and spiritual closeness to them.

The story's title is a reference to distancing emotionally and psychologically from the deep pain of grief; the businesslike word "management" implies that the pain of losing a loved one can be regulated and controlled. And this Shaila and the other characters attempt to do, using various forms of distance. In the first lines of the story, the reader senses distance between Shaila and the women in her kitchen. Shaila says, "A woman I don't know is boiling tea the Indian way in my kitchen. There are a lot of women I don't know in my kitchen, whispering, and moving tactfully." As she sits in her own home, Shaila is surrounded by strangers with whom she feels no desire to connect. She watches with detachment as the women prepare tea and food, trying to help with what is, at this point in the story, an unclear but ominous situation. Aware of her own odd calmness and composure, Shaila thinks, "I wonder if pills alone can explain this calm. Not peace, just a deadening quiet. I was always controlled, but never repressed. Sound can reach me, but my body is tensed, ready to scream. I hear their voices all around me. I hear my boys and Vikram cry, 'Mommy, Shaila!' and their screams insulate me, like headphones." A few pages later, a government official commends her ability to cope with the loss of her family, and Shaila thinks to herself, "I am a freak. No one who has ever known me would think of me reacting this way. This terrible calm will not go away." She realizes that she is completely numb to the feelings she ought to be experiencing, and powerless to change this.

The first few pages of the story leave the reader questioning; it is clear that something tragic has happened, and that it affects many Indian people in Canada, but the horror of the plane crash is not revealed until several pages later. This technique creates confusion and curiosity, which draw the reader into the narrative. At the same time, it creates distance between the reader and the storyteller. Shaila, as the narrator, seems to be holding the reader at arm's length until ready to reveal the specifics of the awful tragedy. Shaila's emotional numbness and her unwillingness to reveal herself to the reader suggest that she is suffering the pangs of survivor's guilt. (Survivor's guilt is often felt by people who survive a tragic accident, or by the families of those killed.) Shaila comments that the lucky ones in the crash are the "intact families with no survivors." Clearly, she feels that it is she, not her husband and sons, who has been "cut off," or put at a distance; they are "intact," together.

Shaila's trips to Ireland and then to India signify geographical distance, and each place has special meaning in Shaila's life. Her family's plane crashed over Ireland, which embodies her profound loss and holds the key to her ability or inability to say goodbye. On her trip to India, she must bury her husband and sons, and reconnect with the rest of her family in hopes of finding strength. On the surface, Shaila's journey to Ireland is for the purpose of identifying her loved ones, but the real reason she must go is to cast tokens of her love for them on the water and bid them farewell. In a very real sense, by traversing physical distance she is trying to close some of the distance between herself and her lost family. This is especially true for her husband. She explains to Kusum, another Indian woman who was widowed by the crash, "I never once told him that I loved him. I was too much the well brought up woman. I was so well brought up I never felt comfortable calling my husband by his first name." In Ireland, she tosses a poem she has written for him into the water, thinking to herself, "Finally he'll know my feelings for him." Clearly, the emotional distance between Shaila and her husband was great while he was alive, and only now that the distance is widened by his death does she take steps to draw closer to him.

Shaila's travels to Ireland and India also represent her impulse to close an expansive gap within herself, so she can feel the feelings she should be experiencing, and so she can discover who she is on her own and what she should do. Although crossing geographical distances does not literally bring her closer to the answers she seeks, the journey helps her understand that those answers are only to be found by forging her own identity. When Shaila has the vision of her husband telling her to finish the work they started and later hears the voices of her family telling her to be brave, she realizes that she has done the seemingly impossible—achieved emotional closeness to her family, even across the divide of death. She also understands that her husband respects her strength and wants her to be independent and fully alive. Early in the story, Kusum asks Shaila, "Why does God give us so much if all along He intends to take it away?" Shaila's story shows that while gifts sometimes are taken away, when something is taken away, something else is also given; endings are also beginnings.

Mukherjee shows that people often maintain a safe psychological distance between their vulnerability and the truth. Forced to cope with an unspeakable tragedy, Kusum and Shaila keep the truth of their losses away from their hearts until they are ready to face it. Kusum begins to see a swami, who tells her that she should not be depressed, because her family is now in a better place than Kusum herself. He adds that being depressed over their loss is selfish. Believing this allows Kusum to postpone—to manage—her grief. Shaila accomplishes the same end by holding onto the hope that, by some miracle, her sons survived the crash and are waiting on a nearby island to be rescued. She contends that because her older son was an accomplished swimmer, he could have swum to safety. Since he would not leave his younger brother to drown or be devoured by sharks, he would have pulled him to the island, too. She reasons, "No wonder my boys' photographs haven't turned up in the gallery of the recovered dead." This thought brings relief, as does viewing a number of bodies that do not turn out to be those of her sons. She is ecstatic and thinks of her suitcase full of dry clothes for her boys. Later, she rationalizes her seemingly irrational hopefulness when she thinks, "In our culture, it is a parent's duty to hope." Not until she has a vision of her husband's spirit does she begin to accept that she is alone in the world, at which point she closes the gap between her wishes and the truth.

The story also depicts a wide gap between Indian and Canadian culture. The bureaucrat Judith Templeton personifies the government's misguided efforts to help people it does not understand. Judith is a social worker, yet she is grossly unequipped to handle the trials of the people she is trying to help. Her goal is to force them to accept the kind of help the government can offer, but when they resist, she makes no effort to understand why. Instead, she views them as difficult and ignorant. Rather than educate herself about Indian culture, she spouts textbook research about grief management, assuming that this information applies universally to anyone suffering the loss of a loved one. She then categorizes the bereft according to which stage of grieving they have reached, using this is a measure of her own success or failure. Like Shaila and Kusum, Judith tries to control grief. Shaila tries to help Judith by acting as a translator, but Judith's insensitivity becomes too much, and Shaila leaves her on her own. Shaila chooses, finally, to accept the distance between herself and the social worker.

The story ends on a hopeful note. Throughout the story, Shaila is caught between the known and the unknown, between feeling and numbness, and between fear and confidence. She says, "At thirty-six, I am too old to start over and too young to give up. Like my husband's spirit, I flutter between two worlds." In this state of mind, Shaila actually inhabits distance. She exists between two worlds until she hears her family telling her, "Your time has come. Go, be brave." She then chooses to live fully. She accepts that she is beginning a new journey, and although she does not know where it will take her, she is ready to "start walking." She accepts that she is not too old to start over, and, more importantly, that she is not afraid to start over. She steps out of the gap and begins the arduous task of creating a new life. Through a process of creating and closing various distances, Shaila has navigated, and perhaps even managed, her grief.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature.

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Critical Overview