In Mourning, You Are Blessed

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By Joy Howard | Twitter: @DrJoyAJHoward

F_Joy

My students and I read the 17th Century poetry of Anne Bradstreet this week. Many of them embraced her pithy lines asserting her right as a woman to publish her poetry in a man’s world that said women’s hands were meant for sewing, not writing:

“I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.”

Even the self-declared cynics rejoiced in the sweetness of the love poems Bradstreet wrote her husband. They joked that they understood why the couple had eight children after reading those poems.

“My love is such that rivers cannot quench”

It was fun to celebrate the poems of the gutsy first Euro-American woman poet. It was much less fun to think about the tragic loss that lay behind one of her most famous poems written after her family’s home burned to the ground. My students agreed that they did not like the poem mourning the loss of the home and everything in it.

I asked the class to step into her sadness with me and I read aloud Bradstreet’s metered words:

“I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of ‘fire’ and ‘fire’”

The discomfort in the room was palpable. The discomfort in my own body was thick, too.

When I read the line that claimed: “I blest His name that gave and took,” there was a small sigh from the corner of the room. I looked up from the poem and one of my students expressed relief that that Bradstreet could “move on” so quickly. “That’s good,” he said, “it isn’t healthy to hang on the bad stuff that happens in life.” The other students seemed to agree.

I wanted to agree with them, but Bradstreet does not stop her poem there. I pointed out that she wrote another 20 lines of verse listing what she had lost in the fire. She wrote that she walked past her old home often and thought about everything that had burned.

“I think it would be healthier for her to just move on,” said another student softly on the side of the room. The class echoed her sentiments. “Sometimes, shit happens and you just need to move on,” said another, summing up several comments.

I thought I understood why my students resisted walking through this sadness with me. Our culture likes us to “move on.” We are notorious for our “I’m good!” answers to “How are you?” queries. We like Instagram posts that remind us to “Let Go and let God.”

I thought I understood what was behind my students’ resistance, but as it turned out, I didn’t.

We explored the list Anne Bradstreet gives us readers. She mourned the big table that had been the place of joyful conversation and dinner for her family and for guests. She remembered the chairs she sat in when she rocked her babies and fed them.

She mourned her trunk and the chest—moveable wealth, as early Americanists would say, emphasizing that furniture was often the only thing a woman could claim as their own. Perhaps she kept her children’s baby shoes or locks of their hair in the trunk. Her books were probably stored carefully in that chest too, safely tucked out of reach of toddler fingers and mouths, waiting for the busy momma to have a spare moment in the middle of a night to read and to write.

She mourned the loss of the quilts and blankets she had made to keep her family warm in the cold New England winters. She mourned the loss of her bedroom where the love of her life, her “bridegroom” husband and she talked about how to raise their children to be kind in a colonial world that was defined by war, slavery, and illness.

I suggested to my students that perhaps Bradstreet poem models a way for us to mourn—a pattern we might follow. Slow down and walk through our sadness item by item. I liked this interpretation of mine. I was fairly certain that for Bradstreet, writing this poem was healing. It takes a long time to write a poem with such brilliant meter and feet and in that time, she walked with her sorrow. She didn’t “move on” quickly. She walked past the charred shell of her house and she cried, day after day after day for many weeks.

And my students shook their heads in disagreement.

They agreed with me that it never helps to have someone tell you “get over it” when you have just lost your house, or your mom, or your job. One student asserted to affirming laughter, “No one should ever say: When God closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.”

“But there is always so much loss,” one of them said when the defensive chuckles faded away, “we cannot list it all.”

The classroom was silent.

“And,” said one of the English majors who usually saves her words for the printed page, “Anne Bradstreet had time and money to go back and mourn her stuff. She had somewhere to live. Her husband was rich. They had friends that were wealthy and those friends had big enough houses to help them out. Her kids weren’t starving. She could still take time to write poetry.”

I was silent because I knew I was in the presence of truth.

Of course, it is true that Bradstreet’s mode of lament was healthy. There is “a time to weep—a time to mourn,” the author of Ecclesiastes says. We read that Jesus told his followers: “Blessed are those who mourn.” We are given blessings and love when we grieve. We are not told to pull ourselves together and get it over it.

It’s okay to list our losses. It’s okay to lament. It’s okay to say “Enough! I’m broken. This is too much.”

It’s also okay if you cannot mourn this way because your list is too long. It’s okay if your truth is like my students’.

My students are spot on. It is a result of privilege to have the time, the emotional space and the physical energy to mourn.

If your list of sorrows and losses is too long and you do not have the time to even begin to mourn the way Bradstreet did: you are not alone. And you are Blessed by a Savior who said “Blessed are those who mourn.”

You are Blessed not because of a particular way in which you enact your mourning.
You are Blessed because in your heart, there is still space for sorrow and that in and of itself is amazing.

You are Blessed not because you have gotten over your sadness.
You are Blessed because you carry your losses wherever you walk even though they are invisible to many.

You are Blessed not because you have figured out a way to move on.
You are Blessed because you get up when little ones need you.

You are Blessed not because you have Let it Go.
You are Blessed because you are precious in the eyes of Heaven.

You are Blessed not because you can write a poem or say a prayer or go to Bible study.
You are Blessed God made Flesh whispered it thus.

You are Blessed. In your sorrow, you are Blessed.

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About Joy:

Dr Joy HowardJoy is an Assistant Professor of English at New Jersey City University and Early Americanist. Her current book project explores ways of hearing voices assumed to be silent through the case study of Rebecca Kellogg Ashley, an Indian captive turned missionary translator in the 18th century. She’s also one half of Sistercraft, where she is Chief Crocheting Officer!

You can connect with Joy on twitter.

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Image credit: Volkan Olmez

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  • stella

    reading this while listening to your love is strong by John Foreman. We are blessed because His love is strong enough for us. Such a beautiful piece.

    • Joy Howard

      This is such a lovely connection. Thank you for posting.

  • This is completely beautiful and gave me goosebumps the whole way through. I have been thinking a lot lately about the need (perhaps more so in stiff-upper-lipped UK where I live!) for us to become more comfortable with the language of grief, of lament, of mourning – which, as you say, is a privilege in itself. You said ‘I knew I was in the presence of truth’ at your students’ words – that is just how I felt reading this, thank you Joy.

    • Joy Howard

      Thank you, Naomi

  • Yes, we who have the time and means to mourn out losses are richly blessed. So many many many women across the world must move on quickly, or die. My heart grieves for all those who don’t have the luxury, who are not allowed the dignity, who don’t have the time for mourning.

    The women who board tiny unseaworthy boats with their babies and children trying to make it across the seas to places of refuge … and who, even if they make it, will not give them refuge, are just one, only one tiny example of all those whose lives cannot give them the luxury of grieving.

    Your words make me think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Only those who have been provided with shelter and food and water and jobs and security and safety have the luxury of being able to mourn their unhappy childhoods and their broken dreams. Everyone else, and that’s probably 70% of the world, is just trying to survive.

    I love the way you write, Joy.

    • Joy Howard

      Thank you so much, Bev. The students of Mizzou & Yale are heavy on my heart this morning and I feel like my fingers are likewise heavy on the keyboard. So much to grieve.

  • The prophet Jeremiah did the very same thing with his howling, five-chapter-long mourning poem that we call “Lamentations.” The book is really a series of five acrostic poems with chapters 1,2,4, and 5 using the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and the climactic third chapter with 66 verses devoting three lines to each letter. I love the way you said it: We should “slow down and walk through our sadness item by item.”
    Yes.
    It is this willingness to enter into suffering, particularly the suffering of others, that will lead to justice and mercy — the practical working out of Jesus’ vision and prayer: “Thy kingdom come . . .”

    • Joy Howard

      Wow. To willingly enter into suffering. That’s so hard. I think you are right tho. With the privilege to grieve and lament comes a call to suffer along side others.

  • HBurns

    I find such strength and beauty here… You are a wonderful teacher Joy. Thank you for such a valuable lesson here today. xo

    • Joy Howard

      Thank you so much for commenting. I pray every day that I am a teacher that does no harm. I feel the weight of my position especially heavily as the students from Mizzou and Yale protest against the systemic racism on college campuses and in the classrooms.

  • Tender, truthful and empathic. Thank you for these words.

    • Joy Howard

      Thank you for letting me know the words touched you.

    • Joy Howard

      Thank you for reading.

  • Leah Kostamo

    Thank you, Joy for this lovely reflection!

    • Joy Howard

      Thank you, Leah.

  • Joy Howard

    My dear friend from high school lost her 15 yr old son from cancer on Halloween. I had already written this piece on Bradstreet and submitted it to She Loves. I’m glad I did because I don’t think I will be able to write about grief and mourning for quite awhile. 15 yr old Logan was an amazing kid. Funny with a kind heart who brought his community together even as his body could not fight any more. http://www.mlive.com/news/jackson/index.ssf/2015/11/vandercook_lakes_superman_lose.html

    If you have a moment, perhaps you will consider sending the Bailey family a letter or a card. Just to let them know they are not alone or forgotten I have their address in the image attached here.

    • Saskia Wishart

      Oh Joy I am sorry to read about this loss. What a beautiful initiative of support for your friends. I pray that they feel the flood of love as they walk through this heavy grief.

      • Joy Howard

        Thank you, Saskia. As you can see, this Bradstreet piece I wrote is much more complex now and all too close to home.

    • Anne-Marie

      Joy, what a sad, terrible thing – the loss of a child. And even carrying the possibility of that can age a soul terribly. Thank you for this beautiful post. All of it. And as a lit major, I’ve loved Bradstreet, partly for being on of the only shelovely’s published in those days. 🙂 Hugs.

      • Joy Howard

        Yes. My grandma lost a son when he was 27. She buried two husbands and outlined 6 siblings, but it was the death of her child that she said never lessened in pain. She carried it.

        Anne Bradstreet is one of the reasons I am a professor and a researcher. When I read her writing at 19, I was completely smitten.

  • Nicole A. Joshua

    Your reflection on privilege and mourning is profound. In the context of my country, South Africa, where people of colour have been, and continue to be, oppressed for more than 300 years, I would say their list, too, would be long. Your post gives me much to think about with regards to the role of grief in our communities. Thank you Joy. A thought-provoking post.

    • Joy Howard

      Thank you so much for commenting. I have been thinking a lot lately about how systems like in South Africa and in the USA not only systematically oppress people of color economically, but also oppress thru the denial of emotion.

      Expression of grief, of rage, of fear, of the anger that accompanies any great loss was/is denied, ignored and rejected by dominant culture.

      Thus, I think part of our role in community is to grieve collectively. I cannot grief like Anne Bradstreet did because the list of losses isn’t just my list; it is the list of my community, my friends, my neighbors.

  • Holly

    I can’t help but think of Frederick Buechner’s quote about the world being full of beautiful and terrible things. As one who has walked, and continues to walk, through grief these last few years, I really understand the desire, the need, for time and space to grieve. But to feel that so acutely while simultaneously witnessing grief deferred, again and again, by so many folks around the globe…well, that has been difficult. I know that the walking through has helped me process and progress. To have to ignore the pain simply to survive? That just seems so unjust. I love how you speak to that hard and lonely place with blessing. Blessing upon blessing upon blessing. For those whose lives have felt like only heaping coals your pouring out of blessing must be a sweet balm. Thank you.

    • Joy Howard

      Yes and Yes. Beautiful and Terrible.

  • carameredith.com

    Man, Joy, I want to sit in your classroom! Thank you for making not only poetry but God come alive through your words today.

    • Joy Howard

      Thanks!

  • Saskia Wishart

    Reading this now, just as my twitter feed fills with the news of violence and death in Paris, and it truly does feel that “there is always so much loss”. Thank you for this powerful piece. Much to ponder here.

    • Joy Howard

      And now Paris. Oh so sad and scary. No words.

  • I am blessed to have you as my friend, Joy!

    • Joy Howard

      Oh friend, how sweet of you to say that!! I am blessed by you too!

  • I remember reading an article on CNN a couple of years ago about refugees who had been displaced twice – once from their homes, and then again from the first refugee encampment. Now they had only what they could carry as they ran the second time. I remember wondering what on earth it must be like to miss the things you used to have in the other refugee camp. Such depth of loss is hard to fathom, and certainly too much to list as your students so aptly noted. Thank you for this.

    • Joy Howard

      The depth of that loss is impossible for me to imagine. So much loss. And yet, God promises that they who mourn in these depths are blessed. This is also nearly impossible for me to imagine. But it is the only anchor of Hope I have.

    • Whoa.

    • Ugghhh…. we.have.no.idea!

  • I felt like I was in the classroom with you, Joy.

    So poignant, like Saskia said, after Paris. Again.

    • Joy Howard

      With the death of Logan, Missouri, Yale, Georgetown, and now the attacks in Paris, like I said, I do not think I could write this now. The words came before they were needed. That seems quite fitting to me.

      • Joy Howard

        And Kenya