The Middleman and Other Stories
Coping with Grief: “The Management of Grief” and “Big Boy Leaves Home”
Traumatic events leave an unforgettable imprint on people. Often, it is the way in which people handle trauma that determines how they will move on with their lives. Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief” discusses the bombing of a plane that caused the death of many, and how the families of these people go about dealing with the grief they must face. Richard Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home” follows Big Boy as he runs away after killing a white soldier who murdered two of his friends. As he attempts to hide and survive, he must also grieve for his friends. Both stories focus on tragedy and grief, and the ways in which how these characters go about grieving reflects on the realities that affect everyone.
Mukherjee begins her story by setting up a chaotic scene. Many are gathered in Sheila’s home trying to make sense of a plane that had supposedly gone off the grid but that was rumored to have had a terrorist bomb. In order to comprehend the intensity of the situation, Mukherjee writes, “Two radios are going on in the dining room. They are attuned to different stations… The big TV in the den is being whizzed through American networks and cable channels.” (156) The description of this scene depicts how no one knows nor understands what is really going on. Everyone is trying to stay tuned to the media to see if they hear about what happened to the plane. As the story continues to develop, readers get a sense of the desperation and hysteria building between Sheila and the other characters, because deep down they may have realized that their loved ones will not be returning. Mukherjee continues writing, “I wonder if pills alone 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.” (157) Although it seems as if Sheila is in denial, it seems as if her mind and body have accepted the saddening truth that will soon come their way. This is, unfortunately, a universal reality. Tragedy is never an easy subject to accept, especially if it means losing a large number of loved ones time. Denial is usually the first step many go to because they cannot fathom to accept death, and prefer to be delusional until it is proven otherwise. Nevertheless, once people move one from denial, it does not make acceptance any easier as they try to grasp the reality that their loved ones will not be returning, and that they may not have had the chance to properly say goodbye.
As the story goes on and the characters learn that the plane indeed was bombed and that everyone died, they had to then go and identify the bodies. From there, many processed their grief in varying ways. Mukherjee continues on by writing, “Kusum’s put her house up for sale… Pam’s left for California… Dr. Ranganathan…is changing jobs, going to Ottawa. But Ottawa is over a hundred miles away, and he is forced to drive two hundred and twenty miles a day. He can’t bring himself to sell his house.” (165) Sheila believed that Kusum was running away, even if she justified herself by saying that she was seeking inner peace. Readers can argue that Sheila could have felt the same way about Pam, who also moved to a new place to start anew. However, disconnecting from the place that brings grief is an approach many take. Returning to a place full of memories often becomes too much for them to bear, thus leaving that place behind and starting on a clean slate is their way of dealing with the grief without having to constantly reminisce on people that were no longer with them. With regards to Sheila, she dealt with the deaths of her husband and her two children in an odd way. In a visit to India, her husband spoke to her. Mukherjee writes, “Shall I stay? I ask, but already the image is fading. You must finish alone what we started together.” (164) Sheila’s husband asked her from death to continue living on, even if she was alone. In order to do this, Sheila returned to Canada to resume her life as best as she could, even if it was still difficult for her to come to term with. Once she received a sign from her husband that she had been doing what he asked her to, Sheila then fully felt as if she could begin to really live and move past such a sad period in her life.
The tragedy that follows Big Boy greatly differs from what occurred with Sheila. It had started out innocently enough when Big Boy and his friends Bobo, Buck and Lester decided to skip school and trespass a private area to go swimming. What started out as innocent fun quickly escalated when they were seen by a white woman who screamed because she felt that her life was endangered. Although they did their best to assure her that they simply wished to collect their clothes and leave, they did not escape that easily. As consequence of her screaming, her partner, Jim, who also happened to be a soldier, comes with a gun and threatens to kill them all. Wright writes, “Lester grunted, stiffened, and pitched forward. His forehead struck a toe of the woman’s shoes… Buck stopped at the edge of the embankment, his head jerked backward, his body arched stiffly to one side; he toppled headlong, sending up a shower of bright spray to the sunlight.” (“Big Boy Leaves Home”) Jim ends up shooting and killing two of the boys. Since it all occurred so fast, Big Boy and Bobo may not have had time to process what had happened to their friends, particularly if they were trying to escape to save their own lives. Since they lived during a time when the Jim Crow laws were still in effect, they had no choice but to run away to avoid being lynched. Nevertheless, tragedy followed him as he continued on in his journey.
Big Boy ran until he felt he was a safe distance away, and then hid in a hole in the ground until the coast was clear. However, the mob that wanted to lynch Big Boy and Bobo soon found their way to him, and Big Boy feared for his own life, along with Bobo, because he was supposed to be joining him soon. Unfortunately, the mob ended up catching Bobo and burned him to death with tar. Wright continues on writing, “Big Boy could see the barrel surrounded by flames… His eyes played over a long, dark spot near the fire… That dark spot had moved. Lawd, thas Bobo… He smelt the scent of tar, faint at first, then stronger. The wind brought it full into his face, then blew it away.” (“Big Boy Leaves Home”) The death of his last friend was ultimately too much for Big Boy to take in. He must have felt very lonely, especially considering that he had to leave his family behind, and ultimately even put them at risk of getting hurt. Having to deal with the deaths of all his friends under such a short amount of time and under extremely cruel circumstances did not allow Big Boy to really accept the despair that he felt. Wright described, “He had no feelings now, no fears. He was numb, empty, as though all blood had been drawn from him.” (“Big Boy Leaves Home”) Considering that Big Boy had witnessed death so close to him, it is only appropriate that he went into state of shock and then numbness. It must have been easier for him to deprive himself of feeling because grieving could have been his ultimate downfall into death. Had he chosen to dwell in his grief, he could have turned himself in to take away the pain. Thus, Big Boy’s withdrawal from his emotions and grief is not only reasonable, but ultimately what saved his life.
Grief is a complex emotion that humanity must consistently deal with. In contemporary society, many lose loved ones for varying reasons, but the process never gets any easier. Whichever methods are chosen to deal with grief cannot be considered wrong or inappropriate because everyone handles hardships differently. Eventually, they will come to terms with reality and learn to lessen the pain. Thus, no one can determine what amount of time is adequate to move on. Rather than trying to dictate how long someone should be allowed to grieve, the focus should be more on how to provide healthy outlets for these people to release their sadness so that they can eventually put the pieces of their fragmented life back together.
Mukherjee, Bharati. “The Management of Grief.” Introduction to Literature. Kathleen Shine Cain, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Janice Neuleib, Stanley Orr, Paige Reynolds and Stephen Ruffins, eds. Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2015. 156-169. Print
Wright, Richard. “Big Boy Leaves Home.” xroads.virginia.edu. The University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 12 March 2015.