Audio: Formula for Grief by Courtney Cullinan Robb

Listen to Courtney Cullinan Robb read her story, “Formula for Grief.”

Formula for Grief - Courtney Cullinan Robb


“Your father’s death was so much harder on your sister than it was on you,” the mother says to the daughter. Surely, she does not mean this, the daughter thinks. How can the impact of death be quantifiable in that way? The daughter thinks of a formula. Something like SG = FD (MG – 30) or sister’s grief equals father’s death multiplied by the product of the mother’s grief minus the years the mother spent with the father before the sister’s birth. Then the daughter imagines that the mother would see the daughter’s formula as DG = √FD (MG – 23) where DG is equal to the square root of the father’s death multiplied by the product of the mother’s grief minus the years the mother spent with father before the daughter’s birth, such that MG > SG which is much > DG or just DG or just D and no G. If she were dealing with logarithms, the daughter imagines the mother viewing her grief like logdg (MG) = SG such that the daughter’s grief is the base number of the logarithm raised to the exponential power of the sister’s grief in order to equal the mother’s grief.

There must be a system, the daughter thinks, that measures grief and one’s ability to tolerate it. Maybe how family members relate to death is based on their capability to tolerate grief according to family order. The daughter was the oldest so maybe she had been given more responsibility than the sister and therefore, the father’s death would be easier for the daughter to handle than the sister. However, if the daughter was older and the sister was younger, then the daughter would have spent more time with the father having known him longer, and therefore the connection to the father would be stronger, making the father’s death harder on the daughter and not the sister.

Or, the daughter thinks the ability to handle grief test is actually not like that at all and more like a personality test. Perhaps the daughter took this test when she was a little girl so that the mother would have known all along that the sister would have a harder time with the father’s death than the daughter. Maybe the test was as simple as, Draw what you are thinking. Maybe the daughter drew something like a dolphin: strong, intelligent, able to kill sharks. Maybe the sister drew a bunny. The daughter thought, if this had been the case, then maybe the mother had a point. The person who draws a bunny versus the person who draws a dolphin would be disadvantaged in dealing with a death of a parent because bunnies are sweet and innocent and fluffy.

But the mother said, “harder,” not “worse.” Harder meant that maybe the daughter didn’t love the father as much as the sister or maybe even as much as the mother.What kind of system quantifies love, the daughter wonders and is it the same system that quantifies grief? Maybe the mother meant the daughter didn’t love the father at all or maybe the daughter loved the father too much. Maybe now the daughter is left with the sister she loved less than the father and the mother she loved even less than that. Maybe the mother was jealous that the daughter loved the father more than the daughter loved the mother and that was what she meant to say all along.


Courtney Cullinan Robb is a writer and Teaching Fellow at the MFA program in Creative Writing at Hollins University. Before Hollins, she worked in finance in New York City. Her work appears in One Journal and Shadowbox among others. She is the recipient of the Melanie Hook Rice Award in Creative Writing for work on her novel.

“Formula for Grief” appeared in the second print issue of apt. Purchase your copy here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *