What Classic American Literature Teaches Us About Grief

Copious learnings about death and grief exist in novels, memoirs, plays, films, poems and oral histories across time and places all over the world. Although many authors throughout history have written poignantly about death, such as Isabel Allende, Leo Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf and more contemporary authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Joan Didion (just to name a few), today we will focus on 19th and 20th century American authors and what they can teach us about death and grief.

Be Honest in Your Grief

Grief can be overwhelming, but it’s important to allow yourself to feel. Don’t let your emotions manifest in unhealthy ways.

A short story you might be well-acquainted with shares the tale of a man who enters a psychosis state because of his all-consuming feelings of guilt. A Tell-Tale Heart may not be directly about grief, but Edgar Allan Poe paints a character grappling with feelings he doesn’t share outside his internal monologue, and by repressing those feelings, he quickly descends into a type of psychosis of unprocessed emotions.

While many of Poe’s works tend to exaggerate the effects of grief and various intense emotions, the message feels clear: don’t keep your emotions bottled up. Instead, find trusted friends, a mental health professional or grief expert you can turn to while processing your grief. Although everyone experiences grief in their own way, recognizing and allowing yourself to feel grief in the moment will help you move through the healing process.

Grief is Not Linear

Be patient with yourself. Grief certainly comes in waves. After many hopeful days, grief may come crashing down on your life’s shore. But just as it flows, so it will ebb. In Emily Dickinson’s poem Hope is the Thing with Feathers, she compares hope to a bird – the lightness in your soul. Hope keeps you afloat, although some days that hope feels more apparent than others:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers - / That perches in the soul - / And sings the tune without the words - / And never stops - at all -

Walt Whitman’s poem, O Me! O Life! starts by lamenting the hardships of life. We all go through days of struggles, and when grieving, sometimes those moments or days don’t seem to end. But like Dickinson, Whitman points toward hope and urges us as readers to continue forward:

That you are here—that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Grief Can Feel Lonely and Complicated

An allegory for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and a bereaved nation, in Walt Whitman’s poem, O Captain! My Captain!, the beloved captain of a ship dies at sea. When the ship sails home to dock, a celebration breaks out for their return. The people on land do not yet know of the captain’s fate.

The last lines of this poem could speak to the feeling of grief’s isolation amidst the noise of hectic, everyday life and the complicated emotions when you experience joy in life while grieving. You can certainly simultaneously experience joy and deep sadness. In Whitman’s poem, the main character hears the celebration and understands the significance of their return, but silently grieves his captain:

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done, / From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won; / Exult O shores, and ring O bells! / But I with mournful tread, / Walk the deck my Captain lies, / Fallen cold and dead.

Community is Important

Oftentimes, you might not know what you need while you’re grieving, and that’s OK! It can feel like you’re the only one who feels what you’re feeling but know that you’re not alone and that now is the time you need community the most. It’s important to have people you trust to simply be there with you and for you, even if they live far away.

In Maya Angelou’s poem On the Pulse of Morning, which she recited at President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, she calls for everyone from all races, genders, sexual orientations and backgrounds to join in the journey for change that benefits all. Just as it takes every person to work toward a better future for a country, so it takes your friends, family and loved ones to help buoy you in your grief as you walk toward a new and different life.

Here, on the pulse of this new day / You may have the grace to look up and out / And into your sister’s eyes, and into / Your brother’s face, your country / And say simply / Very simply / With hope— / Good morning.

Taking a Break from Your Feelings Can be Cathartic

Sometimes you need to distract yourself from grief when it starts to overwhelm you. I have found this helpful when I feel “stuck” in a grief loop. For me, that’s when I know it’s time to read a book, watch a funny show, visit with a friend or, as Henry David Thoreau was known to do, go on a walk to commune with nature.

In Walden, Thoreau wrote:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

It wasn’t that Thoreau ignored his feelings, rather he found profound meaning and searched for magic in life by walking and allowing the natural world to inform his thoughts and bring forth a life of purpose. He cultivated being fully present when he was in the woods, even when it proved difficult, as evidenced by this passage from his collected writings:

In my walks, I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods if I am thinking of something out of the woods?

It is interesting to note that Thoreau’s brother John died in 1842, three years before Thoreau arrived at Walden Pond. Although Thoreau doesn’t write much about his brother, we do see Thoreau’s “deliberate living” come to life at Walden; he slows his life to live fully in each moment.

Hope Can Be Found in Grief

No, not everything “happens for a reason,” but grief often changes you, and you can choose to expand instead of contract during this forging.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, author Maya Angelou tells an autobiographical story about her childhood trauma, which caused her to be mute for six years. She unravels her memoir as she processes her trauma and grieves the loss of her childhood innocence, confronts racism and remains hopeful in the journey toward equity.

Scholar Liliane Arensberg asserts that “Maya's unsettled life in Caged Bird suggests her sense of self ‘as perpetually in the process of becoming, of dying and being reborn, in all its ramifications.’” Angelou's friend, mentor and fellow writer James Baldwin suggested that her book "liberates the reader into life."

Angelou weaves her story through community, friendship and a changed self “forever affected by grief, carrying it with us always, but constantly healing.” Hope illuminates the path in this idea of moving forward with grief and becoming a new, changed person.

If you’re interested in learning more about grief through books, here is a list of 10 contemporary books that explore the grieving process. Which grief-related books do you recommend? What other lessons about grief have you learned through literature?

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