"Grief takes as long as it wants, in various formations, and doesn't follow rules the way we'd like to think it does," says a character in David Means' new short story collection. That's why grief is so hard to live with, and so difficult to write about — it's unpredictable, idiosyncratic; it destroys in a new way every time.

But Means has never shied away from subjects that are hard to tackle; he's an unfailingly compassionate writer given to constantly challenging himself and his readers. "Two Nurses, Smoking" is Means at his best — intelligent, often funny, always beautiful.

The collection begins with "Clementine, Carmelita, Dog," which follows a dachshund who chases a rabbit and finds herself separated from her owner: "How had she gotten into this predicament, her belly low to the ground, lost in a forest?" When she's found by another human and taken in, she's content enough, but still experiences pangs of grief at the loss of her previous companion.

It's not easy to pull off a story with an animal protagonist; it can easily turn twee or emotionally manipulative. Means doesn't fall into that trap, though, and he acknowledges the limits of the form: "In this account, as much as possible, dog has been translated into human, and like any such translation, the human version is a thin, feeble approximation … " He treats his dog character with … well, humanity, for lack of a better word. It's an elegantly structured story that doesn't sacrifice its heart for the sake of cleverness.

In "First Encounter," Means follows a man beset by sadness who can't help but sabotage himself. His high school daughter, mourning her boyfriend who was killed in a car crash, has filled the void in her life with drugs; one day, he finds her sleeping in a park that's "sort of a wildlife preserve for truants." While she's hospitalized, she catches her dad kissing a woman who's not his wife, and he realizes that the life he knows might be about to slip away forever.

It's a tremendously sad story in the John Cheever tradition, but Means makes it all his own, laying bare the kind of pain that's both common and unfathomable. Among his greatest strengths as a writer is the combination of empathy and near-understatedness that he's cultivated; it's on full display here.

The collection closes with "The Depletion Prompts," a stunning story about a writer struggling to write about his own troubled family. It's told in second person through a series of writing prompts: "Write into the steel of your rage, a rage that seems lost to you now as you sit alone in a house during a pandemic, confined to the space not only by your desire to create but also by a desire to stay safe."

The degree of difficulty here is staggeringly high; writing prompts are rarely interesting to people who aren't writers themselves, and crafting a story from them seems like the tallest of orders. Yet Means does it beautifully, finding beauty in the pain, and somehow making the reader part of the story.

It's a stunning accomplishment in a collection full of them. This is a remarkable book not just about grief, but about the moments of brightness that punctuate it, making it both easier and, somehow, even more painful. As Means himself puts it: "In an average life lived by a relatively average soul, what else remains but singular moments of astonishingly framed light?"

Michael Schaub is a Texas-based writer.

Two Nurses, Smoking: Stories

By: David Means.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages, $26.