Reading during the Worst of Times

January 7, 2016

A friend of mine died this week.

A brain aneurysm no one knew she had ruptured without warning.  She lost consciousness and passed away days later without ever regaining it.  She was only 51.

The morning after she passed away, I kept checking her Facebook page, hoping someone would post a retraction.

Oh God, I wanted someone  to post a retraction.

But they didn’t.  They can’t. My friend is gone and she isn’t coming back.

Emotional pain on this level leaves me barely able to function at first.  I spent the first day wandering around in shock and crying.  I wanted to tell someone but I couldn’t decide who to call.   There were  colleagues we had worked with years ago but how do you call someone, out of the blue, and say, “By the way, a woman you haven’t seen in years died yesterday.  Thought you’d like to know.”  I wanted to buttonhole strangers and say they’d missed knowing someone wonderful.  I wanted to share the pain.

I couldn’t.

After I came home, frustrated and grieving, I looked up an essay William Allen White wrote when his sixteen year old daughter, Mary, died unexpectedly.  Like my friend, Mary White was enthusiastic soul who liked everyone she met and most people liked her right back.  As I read Mr. White’s recollection of the child he’d loved and lost, a knot inside of me started to ease.  When I got to those final, beautiful sentences…

“A rift in the clouds in a gray day threw a shaft of sunlight upon her coffin as her nervous, energetic little body sank to its last sleep. But the soul of her, the glowing, gorgeous, fervent soul of her, surely was flaming in eager joy upon some other dawn.”

…part of me could see the face of my friend joyfully moving forward toward her next destiny. 

That night I had trouble sleeping so my husband turned on an audio-book, hopeful that the reader’s voice could lull me into dreaming.  The book was the much loved Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows and as the reader recounted Harry’s walk toward Voldemort, I thought again of my friend and the premature end of her life. I found myself hoping that, like Harry, my friend felt the support and comfort of those she’s loved and lost when she faced her final moments.  I don’t know this happened but I hope it did.  I wouldn’t want her to feel afraid or alone.

And I realized that although I was still grieving, at least I no longer felt stunned or confused.  Because of what Rowling and White had written about grief, I was beginning to come to grips with mine.     

Reading can be an escape from pain and that can also be therapeutic but greater is the book that helps us cope with it.   Some are fiction, like the ones I’ve mentioned and others, like C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, are not but their message is the same: they tell us we are not alone.  Someone else has climbed this hill before us, someone has known this grief and, through words, they reach out to help us.  They strengthen us as the memory of love may strengthen those who face the Dark.

Yes, I will remember and miss my friend for the rest of my life.  And I will spend a long time grieving. I know this from experience. But reading the words of others who’ve mourned helps me during the Worst of Times.  And their words will continue to be there until I can look with joy again at the dawn.

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