How do women grieve differently from men in the novel?
Oskar’s mom and grandma don’t have the option to stop their lives to grieve because of their connections to children and the future. When Grandma realizes she wants a child, she describes it as an obligation to the next generation, not as a personal desire. In other words, she believes having a child is necessary to secure the future for all people, not just herself. To process grief is to accept that time moves forward, and so by having a child, Grandma moves forward by creating a future that she must actively take responsibility for. Similarly, Oskar’s mom focuses her attention on Oskar rather than giving herself permission to openly process her own grief. She keeps her own tears secret because she doesn’t think it’s “fair” to Oskar for him to see her cry. She knows that if Oskar saw her cry, he would feel responsible for her. As her son, Oskar represents her future, and, therefore, it’s her responsibility to prioritize him.
In contrast, by leaving for Dresden, Thomas eschews responsibility for his child and for the future, allowing himself to return to the site of the past. When Grandma refuses to let Thomas call Thomas Jr. his son, she emphasizes that Thomas neglected his present and his future in favor of chasing the past. Indeed, Thomas spends the majority of the novel desperate to return to the past, from when he tries to sculpt Grandma into Anna to his abandonment of his only surviving family. Unlike the women in the novel, Thomas cannot face the future and is paralyzed by his grief.
Is it significant that Oskar’s dad died on 9/11 as opposed to in a different accident or tragic event? Why or why not?
The novel treats 9/11 as a particularly horrible way to die of the many that exist, showing that death causes grief no matter how a person dies. Oskar’s desire to stop going to school and never be happy has marked similarity to Thomas’s desire to stop trying to live after Anna’s death in Dresden. Despite losing different loved ones in different tragedies, Thomas and Oskar have similar reactions to their grief. At the end of the tape recording of Tomoyasu, she expresses that there would be no war if people could have seen the devastation of Hiroshima following the release of the atomic bomb. Her statement collapses all violent attacks together, suggesting that the devastation caused by each is equally horrifying.
In another example of the universality of grief, Oskar’s mom and Ron find connection in losing a loved one despite the fact that Ron’s family died in a car crash, an everyday accident, as opposed to the international tragedy of 9/11, which claimed Oskar’s dad’s life. A car accident may be an everyday accident, but it nevertheless shattered Ron’s entire world. He is in no less pain than Oskar’s mom, regardless of how their loved ones passed away. Foer also demonstrates the commonality of grief in Oskar’s scrapbook of “Stuff that Happened to Me,” which contains many images of violence that actually didn’t happen to him. By placing these images in his folder, Oskar connects these deaths to the one he mourns. Thus, grief is presented as universal in the novel, not as particularly related to one tragic event.
Why does Oskar use idioms and euphemisms like “heavy boots”?
Euphemisms, such as “heavy boots,” allow Oskar to both distance himself from unpleasant truths and express complicated and nuanced emotions. First and most simply, by saying “heavy boots” Oskar doesn’t have to use the word “depressed,” which he knows is an upsetting word. As Oskar observes to Dr. Fein, he needs to hide his emotions because they have the power to hurt others, especially those he loves and feels he needs to protect. In fact, when Oskar actually wants to upset his mom during their argument about the mausoleum, he changes the mood in his journal to “depressed” in order to hurt her, weaponizing his feelings. Therefore, by using “heavy boots,” he dulls down the impact of using a word like “depressed.”
Oskar also uses euphemisms to express complex feelings. “Heavy boots,” in addition to clearly meaning “sadness,” also evokes the image of big boots, as in the expression “large shoes to fill.” Oskar believes that not answering his dad’s last call was a failure of him to act adult enough to support his dad during his last moments. As the loss of his father is what makes Oskar so sad, the phrase “heavy boots” suggests that Oskar has those “heavy boots” because he literally cannot be adult enough to fufill the expectations he believes others have for him. He is a child metaphorically walking around in large, heavy boots that should belong to an adult.