Looking for a way to mark the 10-year anniversary of my eldest sister Ellen-Marie’s death, I looked to my father’s column’s for wisdom and inspiration.
On a couple of occasions in honoring the dead, his inspiration came from Thanatopsis, said to be the most famous work of romantic poet William Cullen Bryant. It must have hit home for my father; he included the poem’s final stanza in a column he wrote after his mother died in 1936. He used it again several years later when honoring the death of a colleague’s mother.
My reading of Thanatopsis is that Bryant’s point is that death and dying are part of life’s natural cycle, to which all of us will succumb. And when we do, we will join the company of the wise and the good. We should not fear death, but live life fully so that when our time comes we will enjoy our eternal rest.
This is not really much consolation when you are in the throes of grief. When I got that 3 a.m. call on Sept. 25, 2001, that Ellen had died of a heart attack in her sleep, leaving two children and a whole host of other family members and friends, I spent the following days and months alternately wanting to die and fearing that I would.
A decade does give you some perspective. And if tragedy teaches you anything, it is that you must put one foot in front of the other and press on, celebrating life’s abundance every day.
In the last stanza of Thanatopsis, Bryant wrote:
“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
That innumerable caravan that moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like a quarry-slave at night
Scourged to this dungeon; but sustain’d and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him. and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you.
Rest in paradise.