“Grief retreat!” I mutter.
Data takes that as an opening. “I’m hoping it’ll do us some good. Dr. Burton recommended it for us.”
Dr. Burton is the first doctor Mom saw when she had a flu that wouldn’t go away. It turned out Mom had a viral heart infection called myocarditis. Dr. Burton referred her to a cardiologist, who recommended a low-salt diet and plenty of rest, but Mom’s heart kept getting weaker. The VAD was supposed to tide her over till her name came up on the transplant list. Except Mom was dead before that happened.
“Us? Did I just hear you say us?”
“Correct. Us. As in you and me. I’m attending the grief workshop too. It’s possible I forgot to mention that part.”
I groan. Bed enough that I have to miss soccer practice and spend a perfectly good weekend at some grief retreat. But now I’m stuck with my doofus dad.
“There’s a special workshop for parents, but don’t worry – we’ll be in another room.”
“Phew.” Dad frowns when I say that. I think he’s insulted. “It’s you and me, Abby,” he says, shaking his head. “We’re all we’ve got left.”
“Is that supposed to cheer me up?”
Dad sighs. “I wasn’t trying to cheer you up, Abby. I just want to be realistic.”
I told you he was a doofus.
Through the alternating perspectives of Abby and Chris, Planet Grief takes readers into a weekend-long retreat for grieving families. Abby’s mom died of a heart infection two months ago, and Chris’ father killed himself almost two years ago after suffering from PTSD he acquired as a paramedic. Via two different, compelling and believable characters, readers get to meet the other attendees and view the different ways grief can affect people. The narrative style and the distinctive voices of Chris and Abby help bring this world to life while also allowing readers to feel more connected with characters they have just met. Additionally, Abby especially brings humor to what is otherwise a tough read about a situation nobody wants to be in – watching youth mourn the deaths of parents and siblings.
Neither Chris nor Abby really want to attend the retreat. Chris is worried everyone will find out his father committed suicide, and Abby is dealing with internalized guilt over passing the virus to her mother that eventually led to her mother’s death. Also attending the retreat are Gustavo, whose father died four years ago, Vincent, whose baby brother died of SIDS recently, and Felicia, who lost both her parents to a tragic snowmobiling accident. The other youth are much more open to participating in the retreat, and Felicia seems almost excited to be there. Before lunch on the first day, however, Chris catches her watching video she secretly recorded of a group sharing session. She swears she recorded it by accident and deletes the footage, but this is enough to leave Chris suspicious of her stories and motives. The other youth don’t notice anything amiss, and Abby even quickly becomes friends with Felicia. The next morning, however, readers learn that Felicia is actually Jessie Towers, a mean-spirited teen (mocking overweight people on Instagram appears to be one of her interests) who claims to have only intended to come to talk to the grief retreat attendees about potentially allowing her to make a documentary and that she “accidentally” impersonated a young woman who had been unable to attend.
Abby, Chris, Vincent, and Gustavo vote 3-1 to kick Jessie/Felicia out, and so Eugene, the counsellor running the group, asks Jessie to leave. Jessie, however, continues to lurk outside the school where the retreat takes place. Shortly after this incident, Eugene suffers a heart attack in the middle of an exercise. Chris takes control of the situation, using what he learned from his father to make sure Eugene receives proper first aid – normally I would not reveal the outcome of a climactic event such as this, but given the subject at hand… Eugene survives thanks to Chris’ quick thinking. In the aftermath, Gustavo’s mom takes over leading Chris and Abby’s section of the retreat, and, after another 3-1 vote in the opposite direction, Jessie is invited to return to the retreat, even though she impersonated another attendee, has not lost a parent or sibling, and was essentially just loitering outside the retreat after being kicked out for reasons that were never explained. The resolution to Jessie’s plot feels contrived and unearned as she did not have time to demonstrate any change or growth as a result of her being discovered as an imposter and kicked out.
While the conflict with Jessie/Felicia feels like an unnecessary inclusion, Planet Grief truly shines when allowing authentic young voices to express their feelings of grief. Though the characters often play into stereotypes – Gustavo is in his third year of grief retreat and is the stereotypical teacher’s pet, while Vincent is quiet and hides by playing video games – the stories they tell ring true. They feel guilt over things that weren’t their fault; they are angry at themselves and those around them who don’t know how to act; they hide their grief with brave faces and humor. It’s satisfying to see Chris choose to share how his father died, given that his major concern at the outset was keeping it a secret, and to notice that Abby never does share her guilt with the group but grows as the weekend progresses all the same.
Planet Grief is an engaging and easy read that will appeal to any middle school child who is interested in realistic fiction. While the topics covered in this book are a lot for a young person to take in, it is clear from the title and back-cover blurb what the book’s contents cover, and children of this age should be comfortable self-selecting which topics they are comfortable reading about in fiction.
Susie Wilson is the Data Services Librarian at the University of Northern British Columbia. When she isn’t at work you’ll find her curled up with a cup of coffee and a good book.