Friday, June 21, 2013

Grief in the Words of Emily Dickinson

Last week’s post was yet another lesson in showing readers the intangible world of emotion and experience without announcing what the emotion is. Writers we love to read show their readers the human experience from new angles, provide new insights; they allow readers to infer. 

The writing samples used last week were Shakespeare’s long soliloquy about sleep and a much shorter speech about grief delivered by Hamlet. I also wrote four sample passages about grief, using the five senses to reveal the look of grief, its sound, taste, texture, and scent.

Quite coincidentally, an acquaintance revealed this week that she has entered into her own grief, and I know exactly what she must do in the coming days, months, and years. Emily Dickinson said it well in one of her poems:

The last Night that She lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying—this to Us
Made Nature different

We noticed smallest things—
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
Italicized—as 'twere.

As We went out and in
Between Her final Room
And Rooms where Those to be alive
Tomorrow were, a Blame

That Others could exist
While She must finish quite
A Jealousy for Her arose
So nearly infinite—

We waited while She passed—
It was a narrow time—
Too jostled were Our Souls to speak
At length the notice came.

She mentioned, and forgot—
Then lightly as a Reed
Bent to the Water, struggled scarce—
Consented, and was dead—

And We—We placed the Hair—
And drew the Head erect—
And then an awful leisure was
Belief to regulate—

Those last two lines, in bold font added by me, are such a wonderful gift to us. They stay with me always for in those lines Dickinson captured the truth about grief or loss or heartache. She knows what it is we humans must do: accept.

Image from

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, famous for describing the five stages of grief, wrote that the last stage is acceptance, perfectly described by Dickinson as an awful stretch of time in which to accept or believe that the universe cannot and will not restore our beloved, return what we’ve lost, restore us to the state of well-being we enjoyed before the catastrophe hit.

My friend now looks into her future. It’s unfamiliar, dark and vast. Once full of thoughts for that other dear person in her life, she now must find other thoughts, new and different anniversaries. She must make familiar what is not just unfamiliar but unknown. She has too much time on her hands with one pressing duty: comprehend and accept her loss.

Joan Didion wrote about this awful leisure after her husband passed. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion confesses that her grief allowed her to deny his exit, to grow angry that he left her so abruptly until she finally regulated her belief, accepting that nothing she did or thought, did not do or did not think would bring him back to her. Didion lived Dickinson’s description of what the living must do after death.

Reading Challenge:

Read to uncover new angles, new insights about the human experience. Let your new understanding give you greater understanding. Consider reading Elizabeth Kubler Ross's On Death and Dying and/or Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and/or Calvin Trillin's tribute to his dear wife in About Alice.

Writing Challenge:

Tell your own story about regulating your belief to accept a loss.