Grief and trauma play a central role in All the Bright Places: when readers meet Violet, she’s still struggling to cope with her sister Eleanor’s death in a car accident nine months earlier. Feeling that her life no longer has meaning or purpose, Violet is contemplating suicide. Finch, meanwhile, idealizes death and suicide due to his struggle with an undiagnosed mental illness. As Violet and Finch get to know each other, both of them learn that having purpose and connecting with each other can be healing. Over the course of their relationship, Violet finally begins to move on from Eleanor’s death, and Finch finds that he feels more alive than ever before. And though Finch eventually commits suicide, Violet emerges at the end of the novel understanding that, as a survivor, it’s essential that she deal with her grief in a healthy way. Through Violet’s journey in particular, the novel suggests that it’s impossible to heal from trauma and focus on living without finding purpose and connection.
It’s extremely difficult, the novel shows, for a person to find purpose when they’re mired in grief or mental illness. Both Finch and Violet struggle to find meaning and purpose at the beginning of the novel. Since Eleanor’s death, Violet has decided that life is meaningless and is just “filler” before a person dies—which is part of why she contemplates suicide at the top of the school belltower. She also gives up on writing after Eleanor dies, something that previously enjoyed and that made her feel powerful and intelligent. Grief, in this sense, keeps Violet from seeing that there’s any point to living at all, since she can’t write and is just going to die someday anyway. Finch’s inability to find purpose is more complex. He is highly intelligent—he scored very high SAT scores and even secured early admission to NYU—but because of his undiagnosed mental illness, it’s almost impossible for Finch to think about the future. Part of this has to do with the fact that the nature of Finch’s mental illness (implied to be undiagnosed bipolar disorder) means that he cycles through periods of being “Awake” (manic) and “Asleep” (depressed). Much of Finch’s time Awake is spent trying to stay Awake—and when he’s Asleep, all he can do is wait to wake up again. His purpose, then, is essentially just surviving his ups and downs; thinking about anything more long-term than that is impossible.
Connecting with others, though, has the unique ability to help people rediscover purpose and meaning in their lives. As Finch falls in love with Violet, he finds that his desire to stay Awake increases—and he takes what he implies are more steps than he normally would to keep himself Awake. Part of this is because Finch realizes that Violet sees him as someone “whole,” normal, and worthy of love and compassion—and few people, if any, have ever treated Finch that way. While Finch is aware that this episode of being Awake won’t last forever, he also suggests that his relationship with Violet is the reason why he should resist the Asleep as long as he possibly can. Violet’s relationship with Finch similarly puts her back in control of her life. With his encouragement, Violet gets back in a car again (she refused to ride in a car after Eleanor’s death), begins to write again, and even starts a web magazine called Germ to replace the website she and Eleanor ran. With Finch’s help, then, Violet is once again able to think about the future and see her life as something worth sticking around to experience.
Through Violet, All the Bright Places suggests that finding purpose in one’s life is a crucial part of coping with trauma and overcoming grief. When Finch commits suicide, Violet finds herself starting the process of grieving all over again. As she stands in front of the mirror on the day of Finch’s funeral, she wonders if she’s ever going to be able to look at her reflection and not see Finch and Eleanor’s losses there—loss, she seems to believe, is never going to leave her. Nevertheless, Violet ultimately decides to take Finch and Eleanor’s advice to heart and believe that life is worth living, even if it inevitably includes loss and heartache. Finch, after all, was the one who talked Violet off the belltower and showed her that life was still worth living—and Violet realizes that she can continue to learn from Finch’s lessons, even after he’s gone. Finch helps Violet do this in part by leaving her five places to visit after his death—places where he left her notes or encouraged her to see something specific and meaningful. Indeed, his final place for Violet to visit is a tiny roadside chapel built to honor victims of car accidents (a nod to Eleanor) and intended to provide refuge for “weary travelers.” Though this chapel and Violet’s journey more broadly gives her the closure she craves after Finch’s death, following Finch’s directions also reminds her that one of the things she desperately wants to do is travel the world. And with this, Violet is reminded again that she does have a purpose: to live, so that she can see new places and have meaningful experiences even without Eleanor and Finch by her side. Through this, the novel makes it clear that people can find purpose after experiencing a loss—and that their ability to heal depends on it.
Grief, Trauma, Purpose, and Survivorship ThemeTracker
Grief, Trauma, Purpose, and Survivorship Quotes in All the Bright Places
I have a headache. Probably from the glasses. Eleanor’s eyes were worse than mine. I take the glasses off and set them on the desk. They were stylish on her. They’re ugly on me. Especially with the bangs. But maybe, if I wear the glasses long enough, I can be like her. I can see what she saw. I can be both of us at once so no one will have to miss her, most of all me.
“But that isn’t why. The why is that none of it matters. Not school, not cheerleading, not boyfriends or friends or parties or creative writing programs or…” She waves her arms at the world. “It’s all just time filler until we die.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Whether it’s filler or not, I’m pretty glad to be here.” If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that you need to make the most of it. “It mattered enough for you not to jump.”
Worthless. Stupid. These are the words I grew up hearing. They’re the words I try to outrun, because if I let them in, they might stay there and grow and fill me up and in, until the only thing left of me is worthless stupid worthless stupid worthless stupid freak. And then there’s nothing to do but run harder and fill myself with other words: This time will be different. This time, I will stay awake.
I look in the direction Brenda pointed and there he is. Theodore Finch leans against an SUV, hands in pockets, like he has all the time in the world and he expects me. I think of the Virginia Woolf lines, the ones from The Waves: “Pale, with dark hair, the one who is coming is melancholy, romantic. And I am arch and fluent and capricious, for he is melancholy, he is romantic. He is here.”
In 2013, a man in Pennsylvania committed suicide via carbon monoxide, but when his family tried to rescue him, they were overcome by the fumes and every single one of them died before rescue crews could save them.
I think of my mom and Decca and Kate, and then I hit the opener, and up goes the door, and out I go into the wild blue yonder. For the first mile or so, I feel high and excited, like I just ran into a burning building and saved lives, like I’m some sort of hero.
But then a voice in me says, You’re no hero. You’re a coward. You only saved them from yourself.
I set her glasses down on her dresser. “Thanks for the loan,” I say. “But they make my head hurt. And they’re ugly.” I can almost hear her laughing.
For once, I don’t want to be anyone but Theodore Finch, the boy she sees. He understands what it is to be elegant and euphoric and a hundred different people, most of them flawed and stupid, part asshole, part screwup, part freak, a boy who wants to be easy for the folks around him so that he doesn’t worry them and, most of all, easy for himself. A boy who belongs—here in the world, here in his own skin. He is exactly who I want to be and what I want my epitaph to say: The Boy Violet Markey Loves.
Most people haven’t heard of [the Nest Houses], but one old man tells me, “Sorry you came all this way. I’m afraid they been ate up by the weather and the elements.”
Just like all of us. The Nest Houses have reached their life expectancy. I think of the mud nest we made for the cardinal, all those years ago, and wonder if it’s still there. I imagine his little bones in his little grave, and it is the saddest thought in the world.
“Why do you do that? Don’t you get tired of people talking about you?”
She goes quiet.
“I do it because it reminds me to be here, that I’m still here and I have a say in the matter.”
She puts one leg in the car and says, “I guess now you know you’re not the only freak.” It’s the nicest thing she’s ever said to me.
All I know is what I wonder: Which of my feelings are real? Which of the mes is me? There is only one me I’ve ever really liked, and he was good and awake as long as he could be.
I couldn’t stop the cardinal’s death, and this made me feel responsible. In a way, I was—we were, my family and I—because it was our house that was built where his tree used to be, the one he was trying to get back to. But maybe no one could have stopped it.
“You have been in every way all that anyone could be…If anybody could have saved me it would have been you.”
In all his words, the preacher doesn’t mention suicide. The family is calling his death an accident because they didn’t find a proper note […]. I stand, thinking how it wasn’t an accident at all and how “suicide victim” is an interesting term. The victim part of it implies they had no choice. And maybe Finch didn’t feel like he had a choice, or maybe he wasn’t trying to kill himself at all but just going in search of the bottom.
Then he adds, “I feel responsible.”
I want to send his computer and books crashing to the floor. You can’t feel responsible. I’m responsible. Don’t try to take that from me.
He continues, “But I’m not. I did what I felt I could do. Could I have done more? Possibly. Yes. We can always do more. It’s a tough question to answer, and, ultimately, a pointless one to ask. You might be feeling some of the same emotions and having some of these same thoughts.”
She looks at me. “In those moments, none of it matters. It’s like that stuff is happening to someone else because all you feel is dark inside, and that darkness just kind of takes over. You don’t even really think about what might happen to the people you leave behind, because all you can think about is yourself.”