Good Grief

By Lauren Bilby

James Baldwin’s short story titled “Sonny’s Blues” is a story that, within 14 short pages, tells the story of two brothers reconnecting after the younger brother becomes addicted to heroin, and goes through the process of rehabilitation. On the surface, this story is a beautiful piece that gives the reader a sense of hope and connection with humanity, and family. Diving deeper into the story, it instead tells a bittersweet tale of grief, and what it takes for a family to escape the grief of their lives. Similar to the “Five Stages of Grief” brought on by Emily Kubler-Ross, Professor of Counseling at Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis Bill Flatt writes of a process he calls “Some Stages of Grief.” Some Stages of Grief relates closely to the Five Stages of Grief, but instead of the usual denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, Flatt seperates his stages into shock and panic, lamentations, withdrawal, depression, detachment, adaptation, reinvesting, and finally, growth. Flatt’s theory of Some Stages of Grief even acknowledges that grief is a messy process, and oftentimes does not follow a linear path. Within “Sonny’s Blues,” these stages of Flatt’s theory are apparent within both the narrator, Sonny, and their families.

While grief is usually seen as the loss of a loved one, it can also be portrayed as a significant loss of some kind. The story itself begins with the narrator learning of Sonny’s arrest, of which he describes the feeling by saying, “A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long… It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less” (Baldwin 122). The narrator is currently going through what Flatt would describe as shock. When learning about Sonny’s arrest, the narrator even takes note of his own shock as Baldwin writes, “I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again” (122). Flatt describes the stage of shock as typically the first stage of grief, but depicting it as one of the shorter stages of grief, explaining that it “may last from a few hours to several days” (Flatt 143). In detailing and discussing the stage of shock, Flatt mentions how the body reacts to shock, explaining that the body is attempting to protect itself from the grief by manifesting itself physically instead of emotionally. In his article titled, “They That Mourn,” Dr. James Hodge pens his own stages of grief, of which shock is also mentioned as the first step. Dr. Hodge writes, “At that point, he typically feels numb and anesthetized. This can actually be a helpful response, because he does not have to comprehend immediately the magnitude of his loss” (233).

Flatt would describe lamentations by simply writing, “one laments and vents resentment and anger” (143). This stage of grief is prevalent in the narrator’s reaction towards Sonny’s friend in the very beginning of the story, of which had historically had been cordial and even pleasant, but turned cold with the narrator explaining, “…now, abruptly, I hated him. I couldn’t stand the way he looked at me, partly like a dog, partly like a cunning child. I wanted to ask him what the hell he was doing in the school courtyard” (Baldwin 124). Sonny’s friend had intended to share the news that Sonny had been arrested with his brother, however, the narrator continues to treat the friend harshly throughout their interaction as Baldwin writes using specific diction such as “sharply,”and “poor bastard” (125). Despite the narrator’s sharp tongue and assumptions about Sonny’s friend, who is an addict himself, the narrator still gave him five dollars and sent him on his way.

In struggling to deal with the aftermath of Sonny’s arrest and reintroduction back into society, the narrator makes his choice to disengage with Sonny altogether, which leads into another of Flatt’s proposed stages of grief: withdrawal. Not only is withdrawal present at this moment in the story, but it’s also present later with Sonny as he lives with Isabel’s family. During this time, as Sonny is still struggling with his addiction, he decides to learn the piano with the intent of being a pianist. The narrator disagrees with this life decision, but is incapable of changing Sonny’s mind. Eventually, Isabel confesses to the narrator that it’s not like Sonny is living there at all, instead “it’s was like living with sound… [Sonny] moved in an atmosphere which wasn’t like theirs at all. They fed him and he ate, he washed himself, he walked in and out of their door… it was as though he were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn’t any way to reach him” (Baldwin 137).

Within the story, depression and detachment roots itself in both Sonny and the narrator. Sonny is typically depicted as the narrator’s younger brother, full of wit, charm and charisma, despite a private attitude, but only once does he let this mask slip. Sonny and his brother look down on a group of people singing religious songs and Sonny discusses his journey with his addiction, admitting that he wanted to escape Harlem to leave behind the drugs on the streets. Whilst discussing the woman singing, Sonny remarks, “‘While I was downstairs before, on my way here, listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through— to sing like that. It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much” (Baldwin 142). When asked if there was a way not to suffer, Sonny simply answers no, but people try their best not to. This conversation between the narrator and Sonny show how much pain Sonny had been through the past few years during their separation and fights, but also segues into adaptation and reinvesting.

Flatt writes of adaptation and reinvesting that, “one adjusts to the life situation, overcomes the negative, accepts the reality, and goes on with life,” and “reinvesting is initiating the positive” (146). As the narrator adjusts to Sonny being back in his life, he also struggles to accept that Sonny is truly fully grown into a man. When the two discuss the woman singing on the streets, it provides the reader with a cathartic moment of recognizing the fact that the two brothers are slowly repairing their relationship. This all comes to a point when Sonny asks the narrator to come to a nightclub downtown to hear him play the piano. Instead of scolding Sonny for continuing what he sees as a fool’s dream, the narrator recognizes Sonny as a full grown man and agrees to visit the nightclub with him.

Grief is by no means an easy process, but according to Flatt, it culminates in growth: “…people who successfully work through it often become stronger, more mature, and more well-rounded as a result of the struggle” (147). When Sonny and the narrator are welcomed into the nightclub, the narrator immediately takes notice of how Sonny is received, explaining that, “here, it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood” (Baldwin 145). The narrator finally gets to witness his brother play the blues, and following the set, the narrator waves down a waitress and asks her to send drinks to the band. Baldwin writes, “There was a long pause, while they talked up there in the indigo light and after awhile I saw the girl put a scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny. He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it, and looked toward me, and nodded” (148). While the two brothers might continue to have conflicts in the future, the narrator accepting Sonny as he is a musician and a recovering addict, the two have made room for their relationship to grow beyond the expectations laid upon them from their parents.

Dr. James Hodge includes a well-known blessing in his article, “May those who mourn become happy” (229). Both Hodge and Flatt agree that while griefwork is a difficult process, it is a necessary one for those who wish to continue their lives with a sense of hope and normalcy. While Flatt’s theory of “Some Stages of Grief” pays homage to Emily Kubler-Ross’s theory of the “Five Stages of Grief,” Flatt provides more substantial stages that provide those with a blueprint to process their own grief. Within the story “Sonny’s Blues,” both the narrator and Sonny come to terms with Sonny’s addiction, and both find comfort and growth through Sonny’s musical talent. Despite all of the struggles the two have gone through, from childhood to adulthood, the two process their grievances together. Sonny, himself, marvels at the balance of it all, exclaiming, “all that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart” (Baldwin 145).

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues.

Flatt, Bill. “Some Stages of Grief.” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 26, no. 2, 1987, pp.

143–48. JSTOR,

Hodge, James R. “They That Mourn.” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 11, no. 3, 1972, pp.

229–40. JSTOR,


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book