It’s late evening when I hear about a high school classmate’s death. I learn via an email. My reaction is Whaaaat? Thinking I’ve misread the email, I reread it. Then I read it aloud to my husband, hoping he’ll hear a misunderstanding of the message.
My brain is processing as fast as it can, but my heart cannot handle it. So I subconsciously process it all night. I rest, but I do not sleep. I think and think and think. It. Does. Not. Help.
My friend’s death jars me. What further shocks me is what I do the next day: I turn to actions and doings—laundry, cooking, making a plan on the phone with a friend as my way of coping. All of it, done with hollow, empty, sad feelings. This kind of emptiness is heavy, but I carry it.
As I stir about in the kitchen, I recall the essence of a poem that shocks me every time I read it. “Out, Out--”, a narrative poem by Robert Frost. Hoping for comfort, I search for the poem.
The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
— by Robert Frost (1916)
Still stark and shocking. No comfort. The boy, of course, was sawing wood to feed the stove that helped the family stay warm during the winter months. First, the loss of a hand, then the loss of the boy. “No one believed,” though they saw it all. But then they turned to their affairs.
Days later and unrelated to my personal loss, someone posted a poem. I’d read the poem by Henry Scott-Holland before, but I needed it for me this time.
“Death Is Nothing At All”
Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.
Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was.
There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
What is this death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just round the corner.
All is well.
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
— by Henry Scott-Holland (1909)
How I need to let this poem soak in. No, I need to soak in the poem like I might soak in a tub of warm water. All Is Well. I know this in my head, of course. But it is a far greater comfort to know it with my entire being.
If you know others who are in the grief process (which can last for months or years), feel free to pass these poems or this blog along to them. In this last poem, we have the bigger picture. Sometimes that’s what we need.
Believe and be blessed,
A sunset from Pat's back porch in the area of Norfork, Arkansas. Photo taken by Rebecca Bland, January 9, 2018.