Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, 1869


The Dying & Death of Beth

The Dying & Death of Beth:

Part Two: Chapter Thirty-six

When Jo came home that spring, she had been struck with the change in Beth. No one spoke of it or seemed aware of it, for it had come too gradually to startle those who saw her daily, but to eyes sharpened by absence, it was very plain and a heavy weight fell on Joís heart as she saw her sisterís face. It was no paler but a little thinner than in the autumn, yet there was a strange, transparent look about it, as if the mortal was being slowly refined away, and the immortal shining through the frail flesh with an indescribable pathetic beauty. Jo saw and felt it, but said nothing at the time, and soon the first impression lost much of it power, for Beth seemed happy, no one appeared to doubt that she was better, and presently in other cares Jo for a time forgot her fear.

But when Laurie was gone, and peace prevailed again, the vague anxiety returned and haunted her. She had confessed her sins and been forgiven, but when she showed her savings and proposed a mountain trip, Beth thanked her heartily, but begged not to go so far away from home. Another little visit to the seashore would suit her better, and as Grandma could not be prevailed upon to leave the babies, Jo took Beth to the quiet place, where she could live much in the open air, and let the fresh sea breezes blow a little color into her pale cheeks.

It was not a fashionable place, but even among the pleasant people there, the girls made few friends, preferring to live for one another. Beth was too shy to enjoy society, and Jo too wrapped up in her to care for anyone else. So they were all in all to each other, and came and went, quite unconscious of the interest they excited in those about them, who watched with sympathetic eyes the strong sister and the feeble one, always together, as if they felt instinctively that a long separation was not far away.

They did feel it, yet neither spoke of it, for often between ourselves and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve which it is very hard to overcome. Jo felt as if a veil had fallen between her heart and Bethís, but when she put out her hand to lift it up, there seemed something sacred in the silence, and she waited for Beth to speak. She wondered, and was thankful also, that her parents did not seem to see what she saw, and during the quiet weeks when the shadows grew so plain to her, she said nothing of it to those at home, believing that it would tell itself when Beth came back no better. She wondered still more if her sister really guessed the hard truth, and what thoughts were passing through her mind during the long hours when she lay on the warm rocks with her head in Joís lap, while the winds blew healthfully over her and the sea made music at her feet.

One day Beth told her. Jo thought she was asleep, she lay so still, and putting down her book, sat looking at her with wistful eyes, trying to see signs of hope in the faint color on Bethís cheeks. But she could not find enough to satisfy her, for the cheeks were very thin, and the hands seemed too feeble to hold even the rosy shells they had been collecting. It came to her then more bitterly than ever that Beth was slowly drifting away from her, and her arms instinctively tightened their hold upon the dearest treasure she possessed. For a minute her eyes were too dim for seeing, and when they cleared, Beth was looking up at her so tenderly that there was hardly any need for her to say, Jo dear, Iím glad you know it. Iíve tried to tell you, but I couldnít.

There was no answer except her sisterís cheek against her own, not even tears, for when most deeply moved, Jo did not cry. She was the weaker then, and Beth tried to comfort and sustain her, with her arms about her and the soothing words she whispered in her ear.

Iíve known it for a good while, dear, and now Iím used to it, it isnít hard to think of or to bear. Try to see it so and donít be troubled about me, because itís best, indeed it isÖ.

Beth lay a minute thinking, and then said in her quiet way, I donít know how to express myself, and shouldnít try to anyone but you, because I canít speak out except to my Jo. I only mean to say that I have had a feeling that it never was intended that I should live long. Iím not like the rest of you. I never made any plans about what Iíd do when I grew up. I never thought of being married, as you all did. I couldnít seem to imagine myself anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there. I never wanted to go away, and the hard part now is the leaving you all. Iím not afraid, but it seems as if I should be homesick for you even in heaven.

Jo could not speak, and for several minutes there was no sound but the sigh of the wind and the lapping of the tide. A white-winged gull flew by, with the flash of sunshine on its silvery breast. Beth watched it till it vanished, and her eyes were full of sadness. A little gray-coated sand bird came tripping over the beach Ďpeepingí softly to itself, as if enjoying the sun and sea. It came quite close to Beth, and looked at her with a friendly eye and sat on a warm stone, dressing its wet feathers, quite at home. Beth smiled and felt comforted, for the tiny thing seemed to offer its small friendship and remind her that a pleasant world was still to be enjoyed.

Dear little bird! See Jo, how tame it is. I like peeps better than the gulls. They are not so wild and handsome, but they seem happy, confiding little things. I used to call them my birds last summer, and Mother said they reminded her of me busy, quaker-colored creatures, always near the shore, and always chirping that contented little song of theirs. You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone, Meg is the turtle-dove, and Amy is like the lark she writes about, trying to get among the clouds, but always dropping down into its nest again. Dear little girl! Sheís so ambitious, but her heart is good and tender, and no matter how high she flies, she never will forget home. I hope I shall see her again, but she seems so far away.

She is coming in the spring, and I mean that you shall be all ready to see and enjoy her. Iím going to have you well and rosy by that time, began Jo, feeling that of all the changes in Beth, the talking change was the greatest, for it seemed to cost no effort now, and she thought aloud in a way quite unlike bashful Beth.

Jo, dear, donít hope any more. It wonít do any good. Iím sure of that. We wonít be miserable, but enjoy being together while we wait. Weíll have happy times, for I donít suffer much, and I think the tide will go out easily, if you help me.

Jo leaned down to kiss the tranquil face, and with that silent kiss, she dedicated herself soul and body to Beth.


Part Two: Chapter 40

Death of Beth:

When the first bitterness was over, the family accepted the inevitable, and tried to bear it cheerfully, helping one another by the increased affection which comes to bind households tenderly together in times of trouble. They put away their grief, and each did his or her part toward making that last year a happy one.


One night when Beth looked among the books upon her table, to find something to make her forget the mortal weariness that was almost as hard to bear as pain, as she turned the leaves of her old favorite, Pilgrimís Progress, she found a little paper, scribbled over in Joís hand. The name caught her eye and the blurred look of the lines made her sure that tears had fallen on it.

Poor Jo! Sheís fast asleep, so I wonít wake her to ask leave. She shows me all her things, and I donít think sheíll mind if I look at this, thought Beth, with a glance at her sister, who lay on the rug, with the tongs beside her, ready to wake up the minute the log fell apart.

MY BETH Sitting patient in the shadow ĎTill the blessed light shall come, a serene and saintly presence Sanctifies our troubled home. Earthly joys and hopes and sorrows Break like ripples on the strand Of the deep and solemn river Where her willing feet now stand. O my sister, passing from me, Out of human care and strife, Leaving me, as a gift, those virtues Which have beautified your life. Dear, bequeath me that great patience Which has power to sustain A cheerful, uncomplaining spirit In its prison-house of pain. Give me, for I need it sorely, Of that courage, wise and sweet, Which has made the path of duty Green beneath your willing feet. Give me that unselfish nature, That with charity devine Can pardon wrong for loveís dear sake Meek heart, forgive me mine! Thus our parting daily loseth Something of its bitter pain, And while learning this hard lesson, My great loss becomes my gain. For the touch of grief will render My wild nature more serene,Give to life new aspirations, A new trust in the unseen. Henceforth, safe across the river, I shall see no more. A beloved, household spirit Waiting for me on the shore, Hope and faith, born of my sorrow, Guardian angles shall become, And the sister gone before me By their hands shall lead me home.

Blurred and blotted, faulty and feeble as the lines were, they brought a look of inexpressible comfort to Bethís face, for her one regret had been that she had done so little, and this seemed to assure her that her life had not been useless, that her heath would not bring the despair she feared. As she sat with the paper folded between her hands, the charred log fell asunder. Jo started up, revived the blaze, and crept to the bedside, hoping Beth slept.

Not asleep, but so happy, dear. See, I found this and read it. I knew you wouldnít care, have I been all that to you, Jo? She asked, with wistful, humble earnestness.

OH, Beth, so much, so much! And Joís head went down upon the pillow beside her sisterís.

Then I donít feel as if Iíd wasted my life. Iím not so good as you make me, but I have tried to do right, And now, when it is too late to begin to do better, itís such a comfort to know that someone loves me so much, and feels as if Iíd helped them.

More than any one in the world, Beth. I used to think I couldnít let you go, but Iím learning to feel that I donít lose you, that youíll be more to me than ever, and death canít part us, though it seems toÖ.

So the spring days came and went, the sky grew clearer, the earth greener, the flowers were up fairly early, and the birds came back in time to say goodbye to Beth, who, like a tired but trustful child, clung to the hands that led her all her life, as Father and Mother guided her tenderly through the Valley of the Shadow, and gave her up to God.

Seldom except in books do the dying utter memorable words, see visions, or depart with beatified countenances, and those who have sped many parting soul know that to most the end comes as naturally and simply as sleep. As Beth had hoped, the Ďtide went out easilyí, and in the dark before dawn, on the bosom where

She had drawn her first breath; she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look, one little sigh.

With tears and prayers and tender hands, Mother and sisters made her ready for the long sleep that pain would never mar again, seeing with grateful eyes the beautiful serenity that soon replaced the pathetic patience that had wrung their hearts so long, and feeling with reverent joy that to their darlings death was a benignant angel, not a phantom full of dread.

When morning came, for the first time in many months the fire was out, Joís place was empty, and the room was very still. But a bird sang blithely on a budding bough, close by, the snowdrops blossomed freshly at the window, and the spring sunshine streamed in like a benediction over the placid face upon the pillow, a face so full of painless peace that those who loved it best smiled through their tears, and thanked God that Beth was well at last.



Adrienne Nater, 2008

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