Study Guide

The Usual Rules Sadness

By Joyce Maynard


I'm at St. Vincent's, he told her. There are all these stretchers lined up, but nobody's on them. The doctors are standing around. He started to cry. The only times she'd heard him cry before were when he and her mom got married and when her brother was born, but both of those times had been happy crying. (3.71)

It's terrifying for Wendy to hear Josh crying on the phone because she's never seen him cry like this before. Things are falling apart, and she can't even count on her stepfather to keep it together.

It's a sound a person makes when they're grieving deeply, her teacher said. It might not be loud and dramatic, but it's like the saddest sound you could imagine, the sound a mother might make over the body of a dead child.

Or the other way around, it occurred to her now, as in the darkened room, in the dim glow of the blue plastic stars, she heard a sound she barely recognized, and because of the strange numb feeling, it took a moment to realize the sound came from her. (3.99-100)

Wendy doesn't know why she can't cry at first after the 9/11 attacks, but then she finds herself unconsciously making this awful wailing noise—her body is mourning without her even thinking about it.

All this time, Wendy still hadn't cried. She thought it might be a relief, but she couldn't do it. The dull Novocain sensation that had begun taking hold that Tuesday had overtaken her now. The whole world, everything around her, had turned flat and colorless. (3.225)

The world doesn't look the same after 9/11 because Wendy is in this awful nightmare where her mother has died—but they haven't found the body. It's hard for all of them to cope with this grief and uncertainty.

Or Wendy herself, on the phone with Amelia, talking about the outfit a girl named Jessica Overbeck had worn to school the day before, until Amelia had said, Got to go. My mom's calling. Just that—nothing more than the thought of a mom saying it was time to get off the phone—was enough to change everything, take her from normal to crazy in about two seconds. (7.11)

Little things can trigger huge waves of grief and sadness in Wendy. Even Amelia mentioning her mother briefly on the phone causes her to completely fall apart; she'll never mention her own mom so casually again.

Sometimes it was a flash flood. Other times it came on like a slow-building rainstorm, the kind that gives you enough warning you might even have time to get inside before the clouds burst. Once it started, though, there was nothing to do but let the sorrow pound you like the most powerful current, the strongest waterfall. When the sorrow hit, small losses came crashing over you in one suffocating torrent. (7.12)

Grief isn't something Wendy can predict. It comes over her so unexpectedly sometimes that she doesn't know how to react or what to do until it passes. She's completely overwhelmed by her mother's death.

The music was louder now, and it pulled her down the hall, though there was another sound coming from the living room, the sound of weeping.

She saw him then, though it was hard to make him out with no light except for what came in through the window from the street. Josh, sitting on the floor by the stereo, his head in his hands, his shoulders heaving. (8.117-118)

Poor Josh tries so hard to hold it together when the kids are around, but when he thinks Wendy and Louie are asleep, he really lets his despair and sadness out. He's having a hard time, too, after all.

First three years nothing was, he said. You don't realize how precious certain things are that you took for granted. Then they're gone and what you wouldn't give for one hour with that kid you used to take on the back of your bicycle, naming every single fact about the stegosaurus.

It's probably harder on you than on him, the woman said. It's like the people who got killed in New York. For them, it's over. The people who suffer are the ones they left behind. (17.27-28)

Although Alan isn't dealing with a death in the family in the same way that Wendy is, he has his own cross to bear. When she hears him talking about his son Tim, she realizes that he's mired in his own grief, too.

For Wendy, that September, colors had faded till there was only gray. Smells disappeared except for the one terrible lingering scent she had breathed in that night she traveled to lower Manhattan to see the wreckage for herself, a smell she couldn't get out of her lungs after that, whether she inhaled or not. (23.22)

Nothing is the same after Wendy's mother dies. She can't even see the same color and brightness in her life—instead, she's consumed with what she saw at the World Trade Center site and how everything was destroyed.

He tries to do the right thing. Take care of his son. Leave you to do what you need to sort out your own feelings. But as far as he's concerned he might as well be dead himself. Only what's worse is, he's not. He's got another fifty, sixty years of living to fill up on this planet, and at this stage I'm guessing one day feels pretty unbearable. (28.136)

When Wendy comes to Carolyn about Josh being romantically involved with Kate, Carolyn tries to explain to her just what Josh is going through these days. He needs some comfort and human connection in his life in order to survive this tragedy.

They would be very sad that day, and for many days after. In certain ways always. They would also never be the same as how they used to be. But they would also be happy. (34.120)

By the end of the book, Wendy realizes that her sadness and loss over her mother's death will be with her always… but that doesn't mean that she won't be happy, too. She, Josh, and Louie will be able to enjoy their lives in some ways, even if they're always missing Janet.