I recently watched a TV show where the main character came home to find a loved one dead. There is no music playing in the background. The scene drags long, panicked, and fumbling in the silence as she calls the paramedics. As the viewer, you too become entranced by the stillness of death and grief.
One of Emily Dickinson’s famous poems begins with the bold declaration that she “could not stop for Death.” That line resonates with me. I find it difficult to stop for any sort of potent emotion. I would rather plow forward, drowning my emotions in the action of “doing.”
New Years Eve, 2019. We crouched on the precipice of a new decade. I had planned a New Years Eve party with my housemates down to the last stuffed pepper. Half an hour before the guests arrived, I received the news that my grandma, who had recently fallen ill, had passed away.
My heart lurched towards the stillness of grief, but I resisted. I joined the party, wanting to immerse myself in the people, people I loved, people who were laughing and singing, and not similarly held captive by the stillness of grief. But by the end of the night I was exhausted by the effort of it all, falling asleep in an oversized knit sweater someone left behind at the party. The sweater fulfilled my need for a constant hug, and I was begrudgingly ready to be still.
At my grandparents’ house in West Virginia, we bundled into the old rooms with cousins barely recognizable from beach vacations ten years ago. The house was full to bursting, packed with cousins grown shy from unfamiliarity. Yet the stillness pervaded, and we spent hours watching one cousin in particular practice his new hobby of juggling.
The day of the funeral came. I found myself holed up in the kitchen before the service, scrabbling through the industrial sized fridge for tiny packaged pinwheels that had been dropped off by well-wishers. I was joined by my cousin’s girlfriend who I had met days before, and we bonded in the stillness of the old kitchen, snacking on cream-cheese goodness in the calm before the service.
Stopping for death is such a contrast from the life we lead. We live immersed in the manufactured joy on our screens, rapidly jumping from image to image as our thumb peruses the surface. Death has no place in social media except as a celebration of a few faded photographs. Posts memorializing loved ones miss out on the stillness of abandoned sweaters, juggling lessons, and pinwheels. They fail to capture the ways your heart grinds painfully to a stop, looking frantically around for a clear way to move forward. Longing to understand how to continue life without cards filled with customized coupons and single dollar bills.
Yet there is so much confusing meaning in the stillness of mourning.
Perhaps we all share the stubbornness of Emily Dickinson. We cannot stand the inconvenience of grief. But it comes and suffocates us nonetheless. We can only pray that people will make us Texas Toast and sit with us when we have been too sad to eat all day.
Susannah Boersma graduated from Calvin University in May of 2020. She studied secondary English education. She lives in Grand Rapids and works at Carson City-Crystal High School as an English teacher.