I wonder if when Years have piled | Emily Dickinson

Here’s an older post that’s relevant to our current situation. When the pandemic is over, what will we do with all that Grief and Pain?

I don’t wear a crucifix around my neck, yet I find myself in the company of those who, like Emily Dickinson, can’t escape Grief. It doesn’t matter how many years have lapsed. My comments follow her poem.

I wonder if when Years have piled –
Some Thousands – on the Harm –
That hurt them early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve –
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love –

The Grieved – are many – I am told –
There is the various Cause –
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 –
And how they’re mostly worn –
Still fascinated to presume
That Some – are like My Own –

c. 1862

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Emily begins by wondering whether Harm that has Years “piled on” it might be like a Balm. Perhaps like piling ice or heat on an injury? Some would say time heals all wounds.

Does it? Perhaps the passing of Time simply multiplies the Pain of this Harm. Especially in contrast to Love lost, withheld or betrayed.

Emily does a brief roll call of various kinds of Grief. She names Death first, yet doesn’t dwell on it since once it arrives, it simply “nails the eyes” shut. She may have in mind the person who dies, not the survivors.

She then points to other forms of Grief. They’re examples of the barely recognized yet obvious Grief humans carry every day. She names Grief of Want, of Cold, and of Despair. This is the kind of Grief that doesn’t nail the eyes shut. It’s the Grief of being invisible, shunned, ignored, banished from sight in full view of others. Not allowed to breathe air that supposedly belongs to everyone. Native Air that makes one a ‘real’ person.

In the last two stanzas, Emily imagines Grief as a crucifix, a fashion item. Something like a personal Calvary. She observes an assortment of styles and ways of wearing them.

I imagine some are barely obvious; others weigh the bearer down like a heavy wooden cross. Some are flaunted like medals of honor; others hidden beneath bravado or bullying. Yet each is real, whether acknowledged or not.

Emily finds ‘a piercing Comfort’ in her observations. Perhaps she isn’t as alone as she sometimes feels. Perhaps some Crosses are like her own.

When I was growing up, no one told me that grief could be an asset. It was something I would eventually get over. Not a strange gift that could connect me with others.

I don’t want to know everything about each person I meet. I do, however, need to take into account the reality of human grief. There’s nothing so isolating as having one’s grief overlooked or ignored. Or making it a personal problem to solve or get over–as quickly as possible.

Jesus bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. Surely as his followers we can do a bit of this for each other, if not for ourselves.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 August 2017
Image found at wallcrossesandmore.com