Grief’s First Anniversary and Emily Dickenson

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth, –

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.
————————-  By Emily Dickenson

This is July 30. One year ago today my mother lay dying here at our home — her home for the past 16 years. I  had work to do. Her pajama top had to be changed, but my exhaustion in body, mind, and spirit were beyond words. My 10-year-old granddaughter, Montana Smith, stood on the other side of the bed and helped me change her. I no longer had words of comfort, but Montana did, as she gently raised her great-grandmother’s left arm to extract it from the soiled top, and slide it into the new. Her movements were gentle, but deliberate, as were her soft child’s words. “I’m sorry, MawMaw. But I won’t hurt you. I promise I won’t hurt you.”

Mama passed away a little after 10 p.m. that night. Montana had already gone home, but she and her mother came at the call. Their wailing before they even reached the porch pierced me through and through. My sister Katie had taken over for me for a while, and had called me into the room earlier to let me know Mama was gone. We had already called the hospice nurse, but she had not yet arrived. I called the other brothers and sisters, and since I was no doctor, I had not called them in time to be there at the last. And that’s another guilt that grief bears.

As family gathered around her bed, we tried to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that she was with the Lord and in Heaven now, no longer in pain. Someone said as much. But Montana, still inconsolable, screamed out, “I don’t CARE. I want her BACK!” voicing the very words our hearts were crying out, but our minds rejected.

The hospice nurse called the mortuary. The vehicle arrived sometime around midnight. Most of us waited in the kitchen. I could’t bear to watch the bundling of her body onto the stretcher. But I couldn’t help but see them take her out the door. We followed onto the porch. The porch lights were on, but the men carried her off into the darkness and loaded her in. My own death could not be any worse than watching them drive off into the night with that precious cargo, never to come back to my house again.

The next morning I had minor household things to do and arrangements to coordinate. I felt like a body without mind or spirit. My sister Gaynell came early. A woman of few words, she still had few words, but haunted Mama’s bedroom as if she herself were a ghost. We did not much know what to say to each other. It wasn’t necessary, really. The quietness and absence spoke too many volumes.

Now, a year later, I still live in the same house. I keep Mama’s door closed against too many memories, still trying to decide what, where, and to whom, the rest of her few little possessions will go.

It so happened that grief because of various deaths had hit our church family a tremendous blow. Yes, Christians are allowed to grieve, to sometimes take more time than some others because we are all individuals with individual circumstances. Jesus grieved, even though he knew the glory to come. We grieve for ourselves and OUR loss, not theirs. Several weeks after Mom’s death I broke down in church service right in the middle of a congregational hymn. I quietly made my way out and to the top of the stairs going down to the recreation room. There I sat as silently sobbing as I could. Quietly I was joined by two others — my friend who had lost her mother (for whom she was a caregiver) not long before I lost mine, and my friend whose son had been shot and killed by a stranger. They put their arms around me, spoke briefly of their own grief, but mostly just sat on those stairs weeping with me.

Here again is Emily Dickenson, who knew how to put into words our human frailty and sense of loss. We know in our minds that they who know the Lord have stepped through that portal into everlasting life. But here on this side of eternity, all our hearts know is that we have been left behind. Emily Dickenson, in the next poem, wonders how others cope with grief, and if it is the same or different from the grief of others.

I measure every grief I meet
With analytic eyes;
I wonder if it weighs like mine,
Or has an easier size.

I wonder if they bore it long,
Or did it just begin?
I could not tell the date of mine,
It feels so old a pain.

I wonder if it hurts to live,
And if they have to try,
And whether, could they choose between,
They would not rather die.

I wonder if when years have piled –
Some thousands – on the cause
Of early hurt, if such a lapse
Could give them any pause;

Or would they go on aching still
Through centuries above,
Enlightened to a larger pain
By contrast with the love.

The grieved are many, I am told;
The reason deeper lies, –
Death is but one and comes but once,
And only nails the eyes.

There’s grief of want, and grief of cold, –
A sort they call “despair”;
There’s banishment from native eyes,
In sight of native air.

And though I may not guess the kind
Correctly, yet to me
A piercing comfort it affords
In passing Calvary.

To note the fashions of the cross,
Of those that stand alone,
Still fascinated to presume
That some are like my own.
——————— By Emily Dickenson

To those of you who are grieving — whether the pain is new or old — you are not alone. Jesus wept. And so do I.