By Mary Dempsey

I’ve just finished Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, Max Porter’s small and unusual book about a young widower and his two sons. So gripping was the depiction of grief’s teasing, bullying, healing, hurtful ways that I was sure that Porter, the editorial director of the U.K.’s Granta and Portobello Books, must be a widower. 


He isn’t. But he has lived with grief. His father died when he was 6.


As my co-author Marti Benedetti and I push forward on our book project about widowhood dating, we are plumbing the many facets of the subject, including the responses of offspring—both children and adults—to their widowed parents’ decisions to date. What Porter’s book impressed upon me was how deeply loss affects everyone in a family.


Grief may lift, lighten, and ease with time but its imprint is never erased. Indeed, the father in the book notes, “Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project.”


One of my friends spotted the book title’s similarity to that of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” It took little sleuthing to learn that this is intentional. Dickinson is one of Porter’s obsessions, as is English poet Ted Hughes (who was married to Sylvia Plath). The “feathers” reference in Porter’s book is linked to Hughes’ literary work Crow.


In a book-within-a-book twist, the widowed father—an author—is struggling to advance his newest tome, titled Ted Hughes’s “Crow” on the Couch: a Wild Analysis. Porter’s book has its own Crow, a fantastical character that joins the mourning household.


Porter’s award-winning 2015 book is chaotic, gut-wrenching, occasionally funny. Like grief itself. 


I wonder how this intriguing and unusual read escaped my attention until now. Widows and widowers will recognize its jolting ride. The people who date widows and widowers will gain better understanding of how poetic and painful and powerful grief can be. I recommend it.