Michael's death is the key event of the book. Although it has happened before the main timeframe of the novel, Joy's thoughts return to it again and again.
Sections in italics interrupt Joy's thoughts repeatedly. At first she seems to avoid the fact of Michael's death. Her memories focus on the details of the pool and the people around Michael's body rather than Michael himself.
As the novel progresses, so do Joy's memories. She is faced with the stark image of Michael's body by the pool and later in the mortuary. It seems that acknowledging the fact of Michael's death and moving beyond a sense of denial is an important step on Joy's journey to coping.
Joy initially seems sceptical about the book Courage and Bereavement given to her by Doctor Two. Despite this, there are similarities between the advice in the book and the stages of Joy's mourning:
shocked and angry
alcohol and self-destructive behaviour
some men preyon her
At the same time, the book makes presumptions that Joy's situation does not match up to:
source of great strength and comfort
get around her and talkwith
In the end, Joy benefits from following the advice of the book. She remembers Michael as he was in life but also faces up to the reality of his death. Attending the Goodwill Dinner is difficult but ultimately beneficial. And Joy's final decision to learn to swim and her ability to forgive herself suggest she is learning to move on from her initial grief.
Joy's reaction to Michael's death is varied and beyond her control. Sometimes she is paralysed by grief. At others we feel her anger. There is a sense of detachment as she describes her tears - she explains how they look without linking them to her emotions.
There is a similar sense of numbness after her mother's death. Her failure to recognise Paul at the funeral suggests she is somehow not there.
Joy is not the only person to suffer grief. It could be read that Myra's violence, rage and reliance on alcohol stem from the death of her baby. She seems unable to move past her initial anger and need to pass blame for losing her child.