The friendship at the heart of Bridge to Terabithia abruptly becomes a source of grief and loss near the end of the novel. As the story unfolds, however, Katherine Paterson charts the ways in which the power of friendship can become a kind of roadmap to navigating grief. Ultimately, Paterson argues that the lessons of intimacy and respect learned within the bounds of friendship—and the gift of seeing oneself through another’s eyes, which any good friendship offers—are the only salve against sorrow and mourning.
Katherine Paterson structures Bridge to Terabithia by building up the central friendship between Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke, two children living in rural Virginia, to demonstrate the ways in which friendship provides one with stability, comfort, refuge, and even identity. When Jess and Leslie meet, Jess is dissatisfied with his relationships to several members of his family, and his friendships at school feel strained and performative. At the start of the novel, Jess doesn’t seem to have ever known real friendship and his relationships with his sisters are contentious at best. Though Jess and his impressionable younger sister, May Belle, adore each other, Jess doesn’t have any real, profound connection with his other sisters. For the most part, they treat him badly, and he resents them as a result. At school, things are not much better. Jess has a few friends, including the hyper-competitive Gary Fulcher, but generally these friendships are shallow and rooted in taunting, teasing, and besting one another. When Leslie moves to town, she and Jess become fast friends after a brief, fleeting period of competitiveness. Their friendship is genuine, unpretentious, and based on mutual trust, respect, and indeed love. Being friends with Leslie changes Jess and opens him up not just to hidden parts of himself, but to the greater hidden magic of the world around him. Jess and Leslie, teased at school for being so close, decide to create a secret world of their own. Beyond the creek behind Leslie’s house, they settle down on a patch of forest and name the land Terabithia. Terabithia becomes Jess and Leslie’s escape from the world, and a symbol of their freewheeling friendship. At the height of their happiness, Jess thinks to himself, “Leslie was more than his friend. She was his other, more exciting self—his way to Terabithia and all the worlds beyond.” As Jess and Leslie’s friendship grows and deepens, it becomes, for Jess, a gateway to “worlds beyond” his own. Jess’s strong feelings for Leslie show that true friendship is not just a distraction or a passing fancy—it is a key to other realms, both imaginary and in oneself. This profound moment also foreshadows the ways in which Leslie’s friendship will continue to guide Jess through the realm of grief, which he is soon to enter.
After Leslie falls to her death while crossing the creek that divides Terabithia from her backyard one stormy morning, Paterson’s novel switches gears to show how the lessons learned within a particularly important friendship can cushion the loss of that friendship, and even enable a person to better cope with grief. When Jess learns of Leslie’s death, he is, at first, in total denial. He doesn’t believe his family when they tell him Leslie is dead, insisting that the entire thing is simply a bad dream. Before long, however, Jess’s family helps him to realize that he must confront the fact of Leslie’s death—and his complicated, almost indescribable feelings of grief, loss, and rage. When Jess first learns of Leslie’s death, he is so traumatized and filled with guilt for not going with her to Terabithia on the morning of her demise that he enters a state of denial which persists for over a day. He doesn’t feel ready to confront the loss of Leslie—he is greedy for more time with her and unwilling to imagine a world in which they are not together. Jess even believes that Leslie has “failed” or “tricked him” by making him “leave his old self behind and come into her world,” only to leave him abruptly by dying. Jess doesn’t yet see how entering Leslie’s “world’ has in fact prepared him to process and mourn her death in a healthy way.
After visiting the Burkes’ house and witnessing the outpouring of grief among Leslie’s distraught family members, Jess realizes that his friendship with Leslie—brief though it was—has provided him with a roadmap through his grief. The lessons Leslie taught Jess, he understands, will help him not just through his present state of mourning but through the larger confusions and disappointments that life will surely bring. Jess chooses to commemorate Leslie’s death by visiting Terabithia, building a funeral wreath, and laying it down in the sacred pine groves where he and Leslie once sought counsel from Terabithia’s “spirits.” Jess also welcomes his sister May Belle to Terabithia as its new “queen.” Previously, he barred May Belle from entering Terabithia and warned her that she’d be in trouble if she ever told its secrets to anyone. By the end of the novel, not only does Jess welcome May Belle to his and Leslie’s secret world—he suggests that one day, his other sisters might join him, as well. Jess’s actions demonstrate that Leslie’s warmth, imagination, and true friendship have shown Jess how to grieve: not by isolating oneself, entering a state of denial, or forgetting the past, but by using the things learned within the bounds of such a special friendship to forge a way forward.
The painful climax of the Bridge to Terabithia, unforeseen and unexpected for the characters within the book and readers of it alike, cuts short Jess and Leslie’s beautiful and vibrant friendship. However, the book’s falling action illuminates Paterson’s central argument: that the truest friendships provide all participants with the grace, understanding, and sense of unconditional love to make their way through times of grief and sorrow.
Friendship, Grief, and Loss ThemeTracker
Friendship, Grief, and Loss Quotes in Bridge to Terabithia
“Do you know what we need?” Leslie called to [Jess.] […] “We need a place,” she said, “just for us. It would be so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it. […] It might be a whole secret country,” she continued, “and you and I would be the rulers of it.”
There in the shadowy light of the stronghold everything seemed possible. Between the two of them they owned the world and no enemy, Gary Fulcher, Wanda Kay Moore, Janice Avery, Jess’s own fears and insufficiencies, nor any of the foes whom Leslie imagined attacking Terabithia, could ever really defeat them.
[Jess] wasn’t comfortable having Leslie at his house either. […] Brenda and Ellie always made some remark about “girl friend.” His mother acted stiff and funny [and] later she would refer to Leslie’s “tacky” clothes. […] Her hair was “shorter than a boy’s.” Her parents were “hardly more than hippies.” […] His father had seen Leslie only a few times and had nodded to show that he had noticed her, but his mother said that she was sure he was fretting that his only son did nothing but play with girls, and they both were worried about what would become of it.
“What are you giving your girl friend, Jess?” Brenda screwed her face up in that ugly way she had. [Jess] tried to ignore her. […]
“Don’t you know, Brenda?” Ellie joined in. “Jess ain’t got no girl friend.”
“Well, you’re right for once. Nobody with any sense would call that stick a girl.” […] Something huge and hot swelled right up inside of him. […] Lord, it hurt his guts to realize that it was Brenda who was his blood sister, and that […] he and Leslie were not related at all. Maybe, he thought, I was a foundling, like in the stories.
Jess tried going to Terabithia alone, but it was no good. It needed Leslie to make the magic. He was afraid he would destroy everything by trying to force the magic on his own, when it was plain that the magic was reluctant to come for him.
“Janice Avery is a very unfortunate person. Do you realize that?”
“What was she crying about, for heaven’s sake?”
“It’s a very complicated situation. I can understand now why Janice has so many problems related to people. […] Did you know her father beats her?”
All March it poured. For the first time in many years the creek bed held water, not just a trickle either, enough so that when they swung across, it was a little scary looking down at the rushing water below. Jess took Prince Terrien across inside his jacket, but the puppy was growing so fast he might pop the zipper any time and fall into the water and drown.
For Jess the fear of the crossing rose with the height of the creek. Leslie never seemed to hesitate, so Jess could not hang back. But even though he could force his body to follow after, his mind hung back, wanting to cling to the crab apple tree the way Joyce Ann might cling to Momma’s skirt.
Entering the gallery was like stepping inside the pine grove [in Terabithia]—the huge vaulted marble, the cool splash of the fountain, and the green growing all around. Two little children had pulled away from their mothers and were running about, screaming to each other. It was all Jess could do not to grab them and tell them how to behave in so obviously a sacred place.
He ran until he was stumbling but he kept on, afraid to stop. Knowing somehow that running was the only thing that could keep Leslie from being dead. It was up to him. He had to keep going.
Jess raced to the sound of May Belle’s cry. She had gotten halfway across on the tree bridge and now stood there grabbing the upper branches, terrified to move either forward or backward.
It occurred to him that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. For hadn’t Leslie, even in Terabithia, tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world—huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile? […] It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.
When [Jess] finished, he put flowers in [May Belle’s] hair and led her across the bridge—the great bridge into Terabithia—which might look to someone with no magic in him like a few planks across a nearly dry gully.
“Shhh,” he said. “Look.”
“Can’t you see ‘um?” he whispered. “All the Terabithians standing on tiptoe to see you. […] There’s a rumor going around that the beautiful girl arriving today might be the queen they’ve been waiting for.”