The Grieving Mind: Psychological Criticism

Rachel Rees

“Raymond Carver” by PinkMoose is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Literature gives us an insight into the human mind through the characters and the messages that the author has written. Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” is one of those literature pieces that has many elements that help readers grasp and understand the emotions that people go through with dealing when lives are disrupted through injury and grief. The characters, husband and wife Howard and Ann, experience an assortment of emotions at varying times that correlate with Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief as well as perhaps other set emotions and moments outside of those five stages.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross investigated human grief and narrowed it down to five denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This is a set-up that we fall back on to help us understand the emotions we feel during an intense time in our lives. In “A Small, Good Thing” these stages don’t start when Ann and Howard’s son, Scotty, dies. Now the characters show these signs when Scotty has been admitted to the hospital and shows no signs in the tests why he doesn’t wake up. In Bolden’s review of Kubler-Ross’s On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss denial is defined as “symbolic in that they cannot believe that their friend or family member will not, for example, be calling to say hello or returning from work at a certain time.” We see this in the mother’s thoughts as she leaves the hospital to go home for a while. “She wished she were that woman and somebody, anybody, was driving her away from here to somewhere else, a place where she would find Scotty waiting for her when she stepped out of the car, ready to say Mom and let her gather him in her arms.” (Carver, 7) This wish is a moment where Ann wants to deny what is happening. The reader of course can easily sympathize with the sentiment, no one wants to imagine the pain these parents are going through with the unknown. I believe that, in a way the father shows his own Denial when he also takes a moment to stop by at home to shower off. There are moments where he seems to be denying what is happening by his son by focus on himself.

The two cycle through these emotions at different rates, and then have to face denial once more when their son dies and isn’t merely in a coma-like state. This comes out in the same moment, when they are leaving the hospital. For the mother it starts right off “She began shaking her head. “No, no,” she said. “I can’t leave him here, no.” She heard herself say that and thought how unfair it was that the only words that came out were the sort of words used on TV shows where people were stunned by violent or sudden deaths.” (Carver 12) On the same page its mere seconds later when it appears that the father starts on this same denial “An autopsy,” Howard said. Dr. Francis nodded. “I understand,” Howard said. Then he said, “Oh, Jesus. No, I don’t understand, doctor. I can’t, I can’t. I just can’t.” His lack of understanding is part of that denial. The logic is likely there but the comprehending that its happening to his son, is too much. These two respond with the dysphoria that most would in this position.

The next stage in the five-stages model is Anger. This can be narrowed down to “A person’s anger is directed at the person who died or at oneself for being unable to prevent his or her loved one’s death. The authors contend that once individuals are in this stage, they recognize their ability to get through this difficult time.” (Bolden) It is clear that these parents don’t blame their son. No, they place blame on the driver who didn’t even stop to take any sense of responsibility for harming Scotty. We first see this anger come out when the dad gets home and the phone rings. As a reader we can make the connection that it is the baker calling, as the cake was supposed to be picked up today. To the father it seems like a mean and crude joke and thus his reaction is anger (Carver, 3). The anger also comes out when the mother goes home and answers the phone, also forgetting about the baker and the order and seeing it as the same cruel joke that her husband warned her of. “Your Scotty, I got him ready for you,” the man’s voice said. “Did you forget him?” “You evil bastard!” she shouted into the receiver. “How can you do this, you evil son of a bitch?” / “It was him,” she said. “That bastard. I’d like to kill him,” she said. “I’d like to shoot him and watch him kick,” she said.” (Carver, 13) Here she takes the assumption that the caller is the driver who had hit their son. This can also be seen as a step outside of the model.

They aren’t really past denial and Ann and Howard can’t really see past their grief on how to carry on and live past this trauma. The parents reach anger once again, after their son’s death when once again the baker calls. Even as Ann recognizes it as the baker her anger doesn’t recede, nor does the father’s but hers is expressed more potently “There was a deep burning inside her, an anger that made her feel larger than herself, larger than either of these men.” (Carver, 14). Their anger is a driving force to their actions, it is what is keeping them going in the face of their sons’ death. They don’t want to hurt alone and thus intend to bring a type of hurt on another.  I feel like this is also a moment when the couple is trying to show the other that they aren’t weak, however this has a possible backfiring effect towards the grieving process as “Grieving parents who try to protect their partner by “staying strong” and not discussing the child’s death may actually prolong their grieving” (Myers & DeWall, 102). It is possible that by not communicating with one another the parents will be extending their grief even more. Especially as the story itself seems to circle through the stages more than just the once going from when Scotty was merely ill to his actual passing.

Bargaining isn’t really a stage that is easy to detect in this story. “Kubler-Ross and Kessler talk about the “what if” and “if only” mind-set wherein individuals who are grieving believe that they may have been able to control and thus prevent the loss of their family member or friend.” (Bolden) It could be seen that when Scotty is still alive the mother is considering that her being at his bedside, never leaving, is a sort of bargaining. That if she remains, he’ll wake up and everything will be alright. This same sentiment also feels like a sense of denial. Ann then comes to think the opposite,

She tried to think about it, but she was too tired. She closed her eyes and tried to think about it again. After a time, she said, “Maybe I will go home for a few minutes. Maybe if I’m not just sitting right here watching him every second, he’ll wake up and be all right. You know? Maybe he’ll wake up if I’m not here. I’ll go home and take a bath and put on clean clothes. I’ll feed Slug. Then I’ll come back.” (Carver, 8)

The father doesn’t seem to negotiate or bargain so much, and if the character is going through this Carver has left it out to the reader’s imagination. Perhaps it is because this moment is more important to see from the mother. For the reader to better understand and sympathize the mother’s reluctant feelings and what she forces herself to think of just so that she leaves.

Our fourth stage following the model is Depression. “In this stage, the authors discuss the normalcy of feeling depressed and affirm the idea that such feelings are necessary for the healing process to begin.” (Bolden) We can see that this depressed state also isn’t entirely easy to define when Scotty is merely in bed. Once more we get a better sense of this through the character’s just going through the motions. “They waited all day, but still the boy did not wake up. Occasionally, one of them would leave the room to go downstairs to the cafeteria to drink coffee and then, as if suddenly remembering and feeling guilty, get up from the table and hurry back to the room.” (Carver, 6) I believe that Carver expresses that ‘depression’ through the guilt of the parent being away from their child. That just in that moment to go to get a drink of coffee the feel as if it’ll be their fault should Scotty wake up and they not be at his bedside waiting.

The stage of depression becomes more distinct for the mother as the wait for Scotty to wake continued. “She felt she was in some obscure way responsible for what had happened to the child.” (Carver, 10) In this moment it feels like she feels that guilt despite the fact that she personally had no part in the car incident. Then things take on a shift towards after Scotty’s death, when the parents have left the hospital and are at home. It becomes clear in the father’s actions on page 13, “In a little while, Howard got up and began moving aimlessly around the room with the box, not putting anything into it, but collecting some things together on the floor at one end of the sofa.” He reaches this state before the mother.

When the mother finally seems to reach that depressed state it is when they have confronted the baker. After the anger that had driven them to the bakery. “Just as suddenly as it had welled in her, the anger dwindled, gave way to something else, a dizzy feeling of nausea. She leaned against the wooden table that was sprinkled with flour, put her hands over her face, and began to cry, her shoulders rocking back and forth. “It isn’t fair,” she said. “It isn’t, isn’t fair.” (Carver, 15) In this sense the father hadn’t followed the set stage as he had gone from his depression to his anger of the baker calling them, as if the baker was mocking them. It is also a show of how people move through grief at different rates and that Ann seems to process emotions further then the father.

The fifth stage in Kubler-Ross’s model is Acceptance. Bolden goes over how “At this stage, individuals are at a point where they recognize the current state of their lives, without their loved one, as the reality and can live with that understanding.” Now it is clear that neither Ann nor Howard reaches this state by the end of the story. But there are moments of a sort of pseudo-acceptance set. “Over his sobs, she could hear the coffee-maker hissing in the kitchen. “There, there,” she said tenderly. “Howard, he’s gone. He’s gone and now we’ll have to get used to that. To being alone.” (Carver Page 13) This is important how Ann acknowledges that her son is gone. It is a start towards acceptance. The true path towards acceptance is shown to the couple through the Baker. He acknowledges their grief and understands it even as if he never personally experienced this. “You probably need to eat something,” the baker said. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” he said.” (Carver 16) I think this really sets apart from the five-stage model, as instead of a counselor or the parents themselves we have a baker giving them those steps on how to keep on living even after a hard time such as losing a child.

Raymond Carver has written a story that has character’s going through a trying time. He has written a story that goes over grieving in a way that seems to follow Kubler-Ross’s five stage model and also doesn’t. People grieve and process at different rates, this is also shown with Ann and Howard. If the story continued on it would be more likely that the characters would cycle through the five-stage model as much as they would also fall outside of it. Still the story itself is a great study of what the human mind deals with when suffering through an unexpected loss.

Works Cited

Bolden, Lori A. “A Review of On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss.” Counseling & Values, vol. 51, no. 3, Apr. 2007, pp. 235–237. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/j.2161-007X.2007.tb00081.x.

Carver, Raymond. “A Small, Good Thing.” Ploughshares, vol. 8, no. 2/3, 1982, pp. 213–240. JSTOR, Accessed 5 May 2021.

Myers, D. G., & DeWall, C. N. (2020). Psychology in Everyday Life (Fifth ed.). Holland, Michigan: Worth.


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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.

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