“There’s not much point in me writing Russell a job recommendation at this juncture,” writes Sloane Crosley ruefully of her beloved former boss Russell Perreault, who died by suicide in 2019.  She then spends several paragraphs extolling the talent and commitment of this book publicist for almost 30 years at Knopf and Vintage, where his clients included Joan Didion, Robert Caro, E.L. James, and James Frey. Crosley worked for Russell (his last name is not used in the book) for a decade, before she left in 2011 to write full-time, producing three highly successful collections of humorous essays (I Was Told There’d Be CakeHow Did You Get This Number, and Look Alive Out There) and two novels (The Clasp and Cult Classic). Grief Is for People (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Feb. 27), her first book-length work of nonfiction, was described in a starred Kirkus review as “marvelously tender”—“not only a joy to read, but also a respectful and philosophical work.” We spoke to Crosley recently on a video call; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the title, which appears as a line in the book. Can you explain it?

As the book opens, my apartment is burglarized, and it really drives me nuts: the violation of it, and the actual missing jewelry, which includes the few family heirlooms I own—owned—and the fact that I was personally targeted somehow.

As I become obsessed with solving the mystery of the burglary, I decide to try something that seems over the top, which is to hunt down some kind of grief group. I don’t know, at that point, if I’m going to physically show up to someplace with folding chairs or dip into an online forum to air my woes—but then I find that there is really nothing for this type of predicament. Grief groups are for people.

Then you lose Russell.

And I realize what real grief is. While the pain of being burglarized may be hard to understand until it happens to you, the loss of a loved one, no matter how they die, is something that [people have] a bone-level understanding of.

Grief is for people, not for things sounds like a silly lesson for a superficial child. But that’s the point. It forces the question: Well, who or what is it not for? Actually, objects were so important to Russell. My objects were so important to Russell. No matter how much Russell’s death may have been a sort of healthy reframing of the robbery, the book makes the case that grief is also for jewelry.

You draw a direct line between the two events, anchoring them both in the moment of writing. Just a few pages in we read, “In truth, I am writing these words on the evening of August 27, 2019. It’s a Tuesday. The Amazon is on fire. It’s been two months since the burglary. It’s been one month since the violent death of my dearest friend. This occurred on the evening of July 27, 2019.” Talk about the decision to unfold the narrative in the present tense, almost in real time.

In some ways, the book is also about how you tell a story—it’s got a sort of undercurrent of being a craft book without being heavy-handed about it, hopefully. In the very first paragraph I talk about how the thief comes into my apartment through my bedroom window, but I get in through the front door, and the metaphor is, How do we enter this story?

Though normally I tend to let things settle a little bit before I write about them, this time, the tears weren’t even dry, so the decision to talk about the actual experience of writing is also about trying to put some sort of collar on this monster grief.

Also, the events of the book take place from June of 2019 to June of 2020: pretty neatly a year. I think that was left out of the press materials for good reason, because it sort of harkens back to that early-aughts trend of “My Year of [Fill in the Blank].”

Spoken like a former book publicist. One thing the press materials do say is that the book is in some ways a departure for you. And I thought, Well, she’s written humorously and philosophically about plenty of semibad experiences in her essays. What’s the departure? 

My essays are based in the humor of exasperation, very much in the spirit of “What fresh hell is this?”—only asked during moderately hellish times. This time, something horrific has happened. It changes the texture of the writing. For me, the point of comedy is to articulate something that everyone is familiar with but has not been articulated in that way before. Humor is in the gap. If this book seems like a departure, it’s because the gap is wider. My hope is that it saves a few people from the self-help aisle, a place where nobody ever points out how ridiculous grief is.

And yet, speaking of self-help, the book is organized into five sections that reflect the classic stages of grief, denial, anger, depression, et cetera. 

From the start, I wanted the book to be in five parts, before I applied the stages. When a lead came up in the mystery of the missing jewelry and I realized that “bargaining” might be a more literal part of the story—of course that’s one of the famous Kubler-Ross phases—it just worked. Like when you unfurl a picnic blanket, and it falls into place on the first try. But you might have noticed, the stages are not in the traditional order, and the last bit is not “Acceptance,” because, honestly, I accept jack shit. It’s “Afterward.”

It’s similar to the way I use the title—that is, not completely seriously. In the same way society says, This is what you’re allowed to mourn, not this, it also tells you how you’re supposed to do it. Though I think the idea that grief is like a video game, where you finish one stage and go to the next, has been debunked. I tried to bat these ideas around without mocking them.

What do you think Russell would think about the book? 

You assume he’d read it. He read very little of what his writer friends wrote, especially former employees. And then, to have this much focus on him, I think, would make him deeply uncomfortable. This is someone who did take his own life, who, at least in the end, had a desire for self-erasure. But I think he’d give in eventually, and then he would be proud. He would like the way I wrote the story, even if I didn’t get everything right. 

In the book, I mention that Russell didn’t get an obituary in the New York Times, though we tried and tried. I like to joke that I got 200 pages’ worth of pissed about it. But truly, one of my reasons for writing the book was to preserve him, to say, Not so fast. Because if I didn’t capture losing him, it would be like losing him twice.

Marion Winik hosts the NPR podcast The Weekly Reader.