I’ve known grief to be a powerful, violent whirlpool sucking me in, with the ones I love most, like inanimate objects. Poems by Emily Dickinson like “’Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch,”  will periodically calm me with their power to articulate.

Since my daughter died at the age of 16, my other two children have had their own grief. But, in addition, they also have had to cope with short shrift from me. Feeling helpless to do any better than the inadequate job I knew I was doing, I mostly found no words for the distance between us and my powerlessness to bridge it.

“Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch,
That nearer, every Day,
Kept narrowing its boiling Wheel
Until the Agony

Toyed coolly with the final inch
Of your delirious Hem –
And you dropt, lost,
When something broke –
And let you from a Dream –

As if a Goblin with a Gauge –
Kept measuring the Hours –
Until you felt your Second
Weight, helpless, in his Paws –

And not a sinew – stirred – could help,
And Sense was setting numb –
When God – remembered – and the Fiend
Let go, then, Overcome –

As if your Sentence stood – pronounced –
And you were frozen led
From Dungeon’s luxury of Doubt
To Gibbets, and The Dead –

And when the Film had stitched your eyes
A Creature gasped “Reprieve”!

Our loss was “a Maelstrom,”“boiling Wheel” rendering our former life a dream. Our skewed reasoning insists there is a personality behind it, so some will say, “How could God let this happen?” But in the poem it is “As if a Goblin with a Gauge -” is toying in our lives until, “helpless, in his Paws -”.

Even when there is a full community of support, it doesn’t do away with the isolation death imposes: “And not a sinew – stirred – could help,/And Sense was setting numb -”.

These words: “When God – remembered – and the Fiend/Let go, then, Overcome -” capture the experience of being a pawn in a terrible drama that every grieving parent or sibling recognize.

The final two stanzas remind me of the afternoon nearly a year after Audra died when I was sitting on the sofa with thoughts of punching my own ticket. My absent child’s no-nonsense way of talking was all but audible: “Don’t you dare, Mom!” “Which Anguish was the utterest – then -/To perish, or to live?”


Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way