Emily Dickinson, and some thoughts on Grief

Emily Dickinson wrote the above poem during a period of immense personal and collective grief while the English Civil War raged around her.

“What is that inextinguishable flame that goes on flickering in the bleak, dark chamber of our being when something of vital importance is missing, or lost?”

Loss visits every human life. It is unavoidable. Inevitable. Philosophers like Feuerbach (and the writers of Love Actually) would argue that the one unifying experience across humanity is love, and I used to retaliate – in typical cynical Charlie fashion – that no; if one such universal experience exists then it is undeniably the anguish of grief. But then, I realised, the two are intertwined. One cannot exist without the other. Grief is but a measure of immeasurable love; the thing left over, the imprint of impact. You cannot feel grief if you have not felt love. And, in acknowledging that, we might (and I really try to do this) actually start to be able to view grief as a beautiful thing; something to embrace, to celebrate: the tangible evidence of all the love that’s left, that stays with (enriches, sustains, comforts) us, until – and even after – we ourselves are gone.

The grace with which we adapt to and accept the sudden descent into the darkness of grief may be the greatest measure of resilience — but it’s also an indication of the absurdity and duality of what it means to truly be human: to live (to accept death), to love (to ultimately lose). To be cognizant of eternity in an instant, to be capable of infinity. And that might be the most miraculous thing of all: to wander around alone – unguarded, unmoored – without matchstick or map – knowing that the darkness is creeping up behind us — gaining on us — will eventually and inevitably catch us one day — yet still unflinchingly trusting that those few, fleeting moments in the light have been worth it when the jaws close in.

Diderot said (of women) “you all die at 15” …

Thinking about my teenage self. Thinking about the death of dreams and selfhood in adolescence, wherein women become partly conventional and partly legend; when their sense of reality is sapped and they begin to exist, function, perform — not for themselves but for a growing, persistent awareness of everyone else: when autonomy and freedom is given away and set aside at the very brink of its actualisation and allure.

Most women, without access to resources and education, cannot change their lives, so interwoven with their very existence are the systems that oppress them. All they can do past a certain point is to merely wish, hope, dream for change… Reduced to magical thinking, lamenting on lost opportunities and stolen potential — what once was, what might have been — whilst constantly having to face the reality of what they are; of who they’ve become: “fire, tears, wit, taste, and martyred ambition.”

(That last line is from an angry Adrienne Rich poem, ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law’, a tribute to “women whose dreams have been aborted and whose very beings have been thwarted and silenced.”)

I grieve for these women all the time.