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Each of us, in time, will experience a heart-stopping reality - the death or loss of someone or something we love. Maybe it will be of a family member or just a pet we dearly cherished, but the feelings we have are all too real and all too painful. This loss is probably by far the greatest and most severe emotional trauma we can encounter, and the sense of loss and grief that follows is a healthy, natural, and important part of healing ("Death"). In The River Warren by Kent Meyers Jeff Gruber learns to deal with the grief associated with the loss of his younger brother, Chris. This grief is perhaps the strongest of all emotions that bind families together, but it can also be the hardest to overcome. We never really get over these feelings; we just absorb them into our lives and move on. According to Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five basic stages of grief. They are denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. It is not unusual for people to be lost in one of the first four stages, and until they move on to acceptance
their lives may be difficult and even painful ("Stages"). In The River Warren Jeff Gruber deals with these five stages of grief and finds peace in his life and with his father.
The first stage of grief is denial and isolation. After Chris's death, life went on, but it went
on in silence when it came to picking up rocks. Chris had loved to hear about the glacier that
brought the rocks up, and it was difficult for Jeff and Leo to speak of it. Despite wanting to
scream at Leo for working and pretending Chris was dead, Jeff could not. Instead he confides in
his wife saying, "He never really stopped working, Becca. Just kept on working. Things kept on
growing, and he kept on working." When Becca asked him, "What should he have done, though?
The world didn't end." his reply was, "Didn't it?" (Meyers 76)
His father's capacity for work bothered Jeff. To him it seemed as though nothing had
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changed. He remembers a time shortly before he left for college and he and Leo were in the field.
Leo was struggling with a rock; "his shoulders were stooped, as if the rock were drawing him to it, as if he couldn't escape its pull." It seemed to Jeff "that the gravity of that single rock was stronger than the death of his son. A rock was nothing, but it seemed to mean more to him than the absence of his son" (Meyers 77). Jeff recognized the denial in his father, and much like the glacier that had frozen the land and continued to bring up the rocks, the silence was freezing his father's emotions. His father used the land as a release for his pain, but it turned Jeff against the land, and he went on to separate himself from the land and his father by moving to Duluth.Jeff stepped into the second stage of grief, which is anger, by blaming his father for putting Chris in a situation that caused his death. When he is deciding whether to go back home for Two-Speed's funeral he asks his wife, "What rule says I have to get along with my father? What rule says I have to want to see him?" He relives his brother's death in his mind and believes "he shouldn't have put him on that tractor. Never should have put him on that tractor" (Meyers 42). He was also angry because his father was not close enough to the accident to help him. He says, "I screamed at him, but the smoke went on rising, thinning, and the muted sound of the tractor continued" (Meyers 112). Jeff believed that if his father had been closer or paying more attention, together maybe they could have saved Chris.
Jeff feels equally responsible for not being able to save Chris, and he fosters these feelings
through his dreams. He relives the nightmarish day in which he could not, despite all his efforts, save his brother. To him it seems it should have been such a simple thing to beat the few inches of water that drained the life from his brother, and because of this, Chris's death weighs heavily on him. Jeff always has the same dream in which the land bulges and is fluid like the river, buoying Jeff like a tree while Chris is engulfed by the field. In the last few seconds of the dream, Jeff is standing in the sky screaming for Chris who is buried so far beneath him under the weight of the earth. He says, "And I, at the top of the wave, am part of that weight, so that I feel, though I weigh nothing, that I am driving him down, burying him" (Meyers 45). He was unable to save his brother and proclaims, "I couldn't lift it off him. I couldn't. If I'd jumped for him sooner. He wasn't crushed. Just held. Five inches of water. Held by that machine in five inches of water" (Meyers 75). He awakes from these dreams and Chris is gone and Jeff has yet to forgive himself or his father for circumstances that could not have been predicted. The past continues to live and breathe, and despite his attempt to forget, it haunts him.
Many people attempt to bargain with God or even with themselves to remove the loss in the
third step of grief. Jeff bargains with himself when he moves to Duluth and continues to stay there in order to remove himself from the pain of living among the life of the land that so readily stole his bother. He also moves as a means to separate himself from his father, who he believes, is ignoring Chris's existence and even his death. He tells Becca that, "all he did was work and work and work, walk over his land and respond to it seasons and demands, and it never stopped demanding; twenty-five thousand years later we still picking up after a moving wall of ice, and the land never release him from its grip of winter, give him time to feel. If he even cared." Jeff is angry that Leo can use his work to deal with Chris's death and is not there for Jeff in the way he needs him the most. He moves to Duluth believing that if he can separate himself from the place that stole his brother and the father who is not there for him, it will help his grief.
The fourth stage of grief is depression, and it can occur in many forms. In many cases, the
person feels numb or void, although anger and sadness remain underneath ("Stages"). Jeff exhibits
some minor signs of depression when he dreams. He sometimes dreamed of the fluidity of the
land and said, "I could never rouse myself -- this vision always came close to unconsciousness --
I couldn't force myself to the window to look. In the morning, seeing the corn standing, I would
wonder, if there had been another land imposed upon it during the night; if the ghost of old waters could perhaps still be here not just a dream in my head" (Meyers 69). His dreams allow his to express his feelings unconsciously, but he is unsure of how to express those feelings to his father. He says, "I'm more familiar with ghosts now, and how we let them haunt us, but I still don't know whether their haunting is something we invent, or they do" (Meyers 69). He also exhibits further signs of depression when he stops dreaming. His dreams were his way of dealing with the reality of Chris's death on his conscious. He wants to shut the door to his past, to the time when he could not save Chris, but the dreams keep reoccurring. They eventually stop when his daughter is born. It became as he called it, "the memory of a dream" (Meyers 52). Jeff knows Chris's death still haunts him, but he is numb to his feelings and focuses on Jenny to ignore his pain.
Jeff reaches the fifth and final step of grief when he accepts that Chris's death happened
and no on was to blame for the circumstances that occurred. Jeff begins this stage when he
realizes; "Chris was old enough to drive a tractor. He was" (Meyers 69). "I know what happened
wasn't Dad's fault. It happened. That's all. There were all sorts of ways it shouldn't have. But it did. No one's fault" (Meyers 247). He comes to realize that the turn of events that lead to Chris's death was superficial to his life as it is now. After Two-Speed's funeral he knows he has to go back to Becca and Jenny, despite the "breach" in their relationship. Chris's death is an open door that he needs to shut but not lock, and refers to it as being, "But only withstood - not closed or sealed that breach. In those first few days working with my father, I realized I would probably never seal it, never cause it to disappear, that it would stay with me, held open by memory, for a long time, while the relationship with my family grew around it" (Meyers 268). Just as Chris was a part of his life, now too were his wife and daughter, and the realization that there was nothing that could have saved his brother opened up the last part of his life he fought to close.
Jeff stayed a few days after the funeral to help his father, and he realized he'd been jealous
of Chris's death for taking so much of his father's attention. He says, "it was strange and
frightening, this realization, so much more complex than I'd known" (Meyers 265). Jeff comes to
understand the situation for what it was -- complex and unpredictable, and he knows it was an
accident. Later he and Leo have a conversation in the same location where Chris's life had ebbed
and passed. They came to a mutual consent that nothing could have been done, and Leo invites
Jeff back. Jeff knows it isn't for a visit but he nods and talks about how much Jenny would love to ride on the bale rack. Leo looked at the ground and shielded his face from his son, displaying the first real signs of emotions he has shown to Jeff, and then as magically as the peace was made life resumed its course. They began to heal and though it was not through so many words, they realize that together they could go on.
The five stages of grief are similar for everyone. Denial and isolation, anger, bargaining,
depression, and then acceptance play different roles in each person's grief and sense of loss.
Some may spend moments in one stage and months or years in another. It is a battle that many
wage internally, but must eventually come to accept and move on. These feelings play an
important and natural role in the healing process, and we learn from Jeff that it is never too late to accomplish this peace of mind. He finally realizes that "swallows, dust, sun, insects blazing in the light - hearing the sounds of the fields, smelling blooming flowers and cut hay, all of it" is "bound together within the horizon" (Meyers 268). Jeff comes to learn that through it all, life remembers and goes on, and so must he.
"Death, Loss, and Grief, 1996." Arnot Ogden Medical Center. Online. 17 Sept, 1999.
Meyers, Kent. The River Warren. Saint Paul: Hungry Minds Press, 1998.
"The Stages of Grief, 1999." Hampden-Sydney College Counseling Center. Online. 17 Sept,