[West Virginia University Press; 2020]

Sadie Hoagland’s American Grief in Four Stages would be more accurately titled American Grief in All Its Stages. This is not a criticism but a compliment to the author for her minute depiction of the diverse shapes grief takes. The list of how people wrestle with grief is endless, confusing, and, like all things, deeply intimate and complex, and the fifteen stories of this collection give a powerful glimpse of voices and characters dealing with these many kinds of loss. Although the context ranges from war, to cancer, to addiction, to suicide, murder, dementia, witches in Salem, Aztecs, each short story gives the reader the experience of a vibrant intimacy. In Hoagland’s hands, the short form serves as the perfect format for unloading the multifaceted trauma of grief in digestible doses that, nevertheless, are devastating.                            

Hoagland expands beyond the simple statements of a person’s death into the complex intellectual and emotional tunnels of how we handle loss.  Each story is guided by powerful inner reflections of a central character. The introspection of the narrative voice relays the empowerment and equal bewilderment of being left to one’s own devices to process what has taken place in the wake of loss. The reader is cast immediately into the intensity of each story by the subtle power of personal reflection. In a number of the stories, Hoagland begins by using shockingly surgical pronouncements of harsh realities surrounding death. In the story “Warning Signs,” the sibling-narrator wonders aloud “If I knew why my little brother shot himself through the head then, man, I’d be rich.” The first line of “Frog Prince,” is “My best friend saw his own ghost and then I saw him. Two months after he died.” In “American Grief In Four Stages,” the narrator begins with “We knew my sister was really different, after all, the day she got murdered.” The approach is raw in its intimacy and, though the characters may be using retrospective thoughts, the reader feels the immediacy of each particular emotional quandary.

For Hoagland, grief is inextricably connected to memory. In her stories, there is often an aggravatingly cavernous divide between what characters recall versus what actually took place. Hoagland uses this existential gap to show that memory can be haunting and can over-power the present moment. The story from which the collection gets its name makes this clear when a woman — in a push to forget her murdered sister — argues for “an intensive Future-Talk campaign . . . where at the dinner table we would only talk about tomorrow, and what we are going to do.” They are haunted by the memory, and in a classic American response, believe that enforcing hopefulness will remove the pain. Yet the story ends with the real openness and unsolvable nature of grief, when the still-living sister states emphatically, “there would always be some remainder. Her death was divisible by nothing, and I was a leftover and I was left behind.”

The theme of being left behind is carried throughout the collection. In the first story, “Cavalier Presentations of Heartbreaking News,” the narrator reflects on the death of a past neighbor who had been a fantasy lover. “I realized his death was not a presence, nor a return, nor a ghost, nor an orgasm but only, really, finally, an absence.” Grief becomes the absence of all the possible ways a life could have been led and so the thoughts of the living are tinged with the permanent tragedy of someone always missing. Likewise, in the story “Warning Signs,” the narrator attempts to figure out why “I’m still stuck as the unfruitful, albeit disappointing survivor.” She searches for the reasons behind death and is left with the realization of an absence that no amount of curiosity can solve. As the narrator struggles, she admits to reading proverbs, perhaps finding comfort in the universal stories that are abstract enough to not elicit pain yet still speak of truths.  In these moments of loss-as-absence and even abandonment, Hoagland shows the more mystical side of grief.

Hoagland’s rendering of the spiritual mystery of our shared connection to the dead in grief captures the feelings of attachment to the dead which cannot be summed up by the emotions of sadness or regret or the simple inevitability of death and decomposition. She shows the spiritual side of grief adeptly through the ghost of a troubled friend, a pain in the body for a sister now dead, and the unpredictability of memory. What begins a trip down memory lane can be as simple as the smell of cut grass or as difficult as the encounter of a friend’s body in a casket, and in these powerful moments of recollection, the dead linger, but are altered.

The story, “Frog Prince,” blends the mystical with the retrospective glances of a narrator upon her relationship to a friend who overdosed. As she simultaneously digests the funeral and encounters the ghost of her friend, she goes back over moments of their shared story. The narrator tells the story with the added layer so common to grief that things could have been different. At each moment the reader finds themselves at a new understanding, and we are reminded of how often hope is a dream for an alternative outcome, realized through the simple use of the word, “poof.” A dream in an alternative reality is best kept to kissing frogs in search of handsome princes. In the end, the narrator provides potentially the most truthful reflection, saying “And it was just as sad as you imagine it when you fail to save someone. Poof.”

Hoagland’s collection American Grief in Four Stages is a thoughtful arrangement of the multitude of ways one can process grief and the loss of people in our lives. While no single character claims the better approach and no approach is made to seem like a cure-all to pain, it is clear that some kind of processing is essential to an experience of grief. After all, each story exists because each narrator is processing a new tragic reality of absence and loss. Hoagland’s stories show the power of grief over time, and the stories reshape us. 

Alexander Barton is an Episcopal Priest in Lorain, Ohio where he spends most of his time processing the effects of late-capitalism with his parishioners  He teaches classes about the intersections of race, politics, and theology. He loves James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and is always looking to force others to read them.