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Down to the Bone: Loss, Hope, and Transcendence in "The Lovely Bones," by Alice Sebold

September 9, 2012

When "The Lovely Bones," by Alice Sebold, an author with only one other book to her credit was published in 2002, it became an overwhelming success, selling over 1 million copies and remaining on the New York Times hardcover best seller list for over a year. How come? What was there in the story of 14-year old Susie Salmon, raped and murdered by her neighbor, and the aftermath of that event, that so gripped the public imagination? Let's take a closer look at the story.

Susie's presence in the novel does not end with her death; it endures as, from heaven, she watches her loved ones grapple with her loss, and her murderer process his crime, integrating it with the many others he has committed. Susie's heaven is a wondrous place: it allows her to understand, process, and accept the horror of her murder; and it views the departed as inhabiting a dynamic parallel universe, pliant with possibility, tremulous with hope, a place where Susie can linger in a heavenly foyer of sorts, delaying exploration of infinity, while she mourns and yearns for the experiences she will never have, nurtures and grieves for her floundering family and friends, and watches and learns about her murderer, her will a palpable and unifying force, until with the fullness of infinite time, when all scores are settled and questions answered, she can finally relinquish her painful ties to the bereaved on earth, and travel beyond the edge of heaven. As she does so, Susie feels secure in the knowledge that:

"these [the events and circumstances impacting and ultimately unifying her family and loved ones] were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence…the connections…that happened after I was gone…I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future."

Susie's achievement of a transcendence, or acceptance, that encompasses all the events since her death, the evil/painful and devastating/exhilarating alike, knitting them together until they are transformed into newly felt experience, is the ultimate answer to the question, how does one create meaning out of meaninglessness − something to “live”/exist for even amidst the horrifying circumstances of death? And it is a nice touch, that the lovely bones representing new associations and meaning, stemming from the reality of Susie's horribly mangled bones, also echo the bones of the small animals her murderer slaughters, and then stores as souvenirs between his human kills; it is, perhaps, Sebold's way of emphasizing that the agony (Susie's) and brutality (her killer's) symbolized by those bones can be equally transcended and "become whole at some unpredictable time in the future."

So in answer to my initial question, I believe the appeal of "The Lovely Bones" lies in Sebold's exquisite, and extraordinarily comforting vision of the afterlife, which resonates with our own universal terror of death, and our simultaneous need to wrap our heads around it, without constant awareness of its finality which, Ernest Becker (1973) says, would be so overwhelming as to drive people to neurosis or psychosis. We want so much to believe that death is not the end, that those that are gone still live within us, watching us, that we can live with the knowledge of their enduring existence. Like a parent's goodnight kiss when we are children, Susie's continued existence after death in her parallel universe has a magical quality that says "hush…everything will be alright," even though, as we get older, we know it might not be, and even though, as we witness the torment of Susie's family, we know that magical thinking will only go so far. "The Lovely Bones" encapsulates this yearning for what cannot be, but might be possible, given our attitude, because, in the words of Victor Frankl, psychiatrist, concentration camp survivor, and author of the book "Man's Search for Meaning." Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude.”


Becker, Ernest (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Frankl, Viktor (2006). Man's Search for Meaning. New York: Beacon Press.

Hoffman, L. (2009). Death, human limitation, and finiteness. In Existential therapy. Retrieved from

Sebold, Alice (2002). The Lovely Bones. New York: Little Brown.



9/11/2012 01:15:46 pm

I appreciate the reference to Viktor Frankl. I often make references to how he was able to continue with his work after such a loss and I am surprised to find that he is so unknown by most.

Rivkah Kaufman

9/12/2012 07:13:47 am

Hi Joseph, and tks for your comment. Yes- Frankl's ability to find meaning in the most abject circumstances is really inspiring.

Phyllis Jackson

9/12/2012 08:19:40 am

Beautifully considered and written Rivkah! My impressions, consciously and otherwise, of the book were similar to yours and though it has been awhile since I read it, your observations are a powerful revisitation of the examination of the afterlife, among other thoughts. Nicely done!

Rivkah Kaufman

9/12/2012 09:35:48 pm

Phyllis - so nice to hear from you again! I'm so glad the article resonated with you, and thank you for sharing your response. Yes, I have always been inexpressibly moved by this book, so the article was an opportunity to articulate those feelings and insights.