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When Sorrow Comes

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 05, 2014

From the Relief Society Magazine, October 1934 –

When Sorrow Comes

By Elsie Chamberlain Carroll

The poet tells us that “Life was not made for sorrow.” Yet to all of us sooner or later, sorrow comes. Our problem is what are we going to do with our sorrow; or rather, perhaps, what are we going to let it do to us?

Before I had really been visited by sorrow, so short a time before that my memory has retained the circumstance, I was at a club meeting and overheard two women sitting near me talking of the woman who had given the paper to which we had been listening.

“I just can’t understand Grace Penrod,” one of them said. “How she could come out today and give that paper, so soon after her trouble is the biggest mystery to me.”

I listened interestedly as I was a new-comer to the community, and had been intensely interested in the paper Mrs. Penrod had given, and also in the frail little woman herself, with her sweet, calm face and poise of manner.

“It was just the same after Dan died,” the woman behind me continued in her confidential undertone. “Don’t you remember? She just kept right on as though nothing had happened. It just doesn’t seem naturally or humanly possible to me for a person to take sorrow like that.” (I gathered also that neither did it seem humanly decent.) “Nell Empy used to say she thought Dan Penrod had at least deserved a few days of staying at home and mourning.”

“And they seemed crazy about each other too, didn’t they,” the other said. “Well, when Nell’s trouble came, she certainly went to the other extreme. She has never been the same since her baby’s death. She didn’t leave the house for months, did she? And she talks about it all the time yet, and would give the impression that no one else in the world had ever had such a sorrow as she. Every place she goes she makes everyone feel as if they were at a funeral. People are afraid to say anything for fear she’ll begin to cry.”

“Yes, I know,” agreed the other speaker. “I feel so sorry for Ned and their kiddies. It must be terrible to live in that atmosphere of eternal gloom she creates in their home. I suppose that is worse than doing as Grace Penrod does. But it’s how she does it that puzzles me.”

It was only a few days after this that the first tragedy of my life came crashing out of a blue sky over me. At first I was too stunned and bewildered to have any definite feelings. I couldn’t believe that such a thing could have happened to me. Such sorrows came to others, of course; but somehow it had always seemed that my own life, our lives were different – more important as it were, and that tragedy was something entirely remote.

Then as the days went by, and stupefying numbness gave way to the intense pain of realization, when every word and object seemed to stab into a bleeding wound, when the whole world seemed so shrouded by the desolation in my own soul that it didn’t seem to be at all the world I had lived in a few short days before, it was then that quite suddenly one day, I recalled the conversation I had overheard at the club meeting.

I found myself wondering what kind of woman Grace Penrod could be to be able to stand up before a roomful of friends and curious acquaintances and give a paper, and laugh and talk in a natural way, scarcely a week after the death of her only son.

It was that same day that Grace Penrod came to see me. I remember that I was lying in my darkened room as I had lain most of the time since my bereavement, living over each moment all the agonizing details of that brief sickness, of the futile efforts of doctors and nurses, of my own frantic prayers, and the administrations of God’s servants.

She came in very quietly, but there was an air of – not cheer perhaps, – but of hope, about her. She didn’t say a word for a few moments, but sat beside me and held my hand. I knew by the soft quiet pressure of her hands, that she understood what I was suffering, and though she was almost a stranger, I found myself clinging to her. (Some writer has spoken of the “brotherhood of sorrow” and I knew what he meant.)

Presently, without having said a word about my trouble, she asked:

“Will you come with me for a little while?”

I recoiled. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving my room, of going through the house with mute reminders stabbing me at every turn, of going out onto the street where I would see people going about as if nothing had happened.

She understood and said quietly:

“I know it will be hard; but I should like so much to have you come.”

I was grateful that she didn’t preach to me about “trying to be brave,” and about “God’s knowing best” and his “needing my loved one,” and all those other trite well-meant themes with which those who have not suffered try to console us who have, and I found myself responding.

When we were in her car and had driven a short distance in silence, I caught sight of the red roof of an office building and began to weep convulsively. Grace Penrod reached over and patted my shoulder, but she did not urge me to stop.

She turned from town and drove out toward the canyon.

“We’ll get a breath of cooler air,” was all she said.

When I had partially gained control of myself, she began to talk. She didn’t seem to be exactly talking to me; at least, I didn’t feel the necessity of contributing to the conversation. We passed a white frame house covered with climbing roses, and she told me how interested Harriet Warner is in flowers and that she always takes dozens of prizes at the county and state fairs. We passed a low rambling stone house, set well back in a wide lot, and she told me that some day I must come with her to see Grandma Eliason who lives there with her adopted family of five children.

Finally when we were completely away from town and felt the coolness of the canyon, she talked of nature and how kind and friendly the mountains and rivers always seemed to her. Gradually I felt the tenseness of my body giving way to relaxation, and for the first time since my sorrow, I had a vague sense that perhaps there were some things in life that really didn’t need to hurt me.

After a while she turned around and we rode back to town.

She drove to a little side street and stopped before a small brown cottage.

“It was here I wanted you to come with me,” she said. “I have some things for Papa Goodwin. He looks for me every Thursday. Will you come in with me?”

We found Papa on the north side of the house. He was white-haired and toothless. His body was bent like a broken tree and he limped as he came hobbling toward us. But that was not all. His faded old eyes had the look of a child and he laughed meaninglessly as he reached for the box of fruit and cookies Grace Penrod gave him.

We stayed but a few moments, while the old man told Grace, in a thin, high voice, of a mine he had in California that was pouring out millions of dollars worth of ore. “I have just received a car-load of money this morning,” he shrilled. “You must have some of it, Gracie. You are so good to me.” Feebly the old man bent down and picked up a handful of pebbles which he pressed into Mrs. Penrod’s hands.

As we went back to the car, Grace brushed her eye-lashes.

“It is hard to realize that he was once a successful banker, respected and loved by everyone in this community,” she said almost under her breath.

Neither of us spoke until we had reached my curb. I was still thinking of the pathetic figure of that tottering old man, once a bank president and a respected citizen; now a burden to those who cared for him. Grace Penrod was thinking of him too. And she was also thinking of her boy who had been taken in his splendid youth, and she was thinking of my loved one who had gone in the very prime of life, for she said:

“It seems too bad that all the trees in a forest can’t be cut down while they are straight and tall and beautiful.”

A short time after this I asked Grace Penrod to tell me how she had gained a philosophy of life which could make her go on living and being interested in life as she seemed to be in spite of the sorrows that had come to her – some of them sorrows worse even than death.

“My philosophy is simple,” she replied. “I follow one little rule. Whenever I find myself feeling sorry for myself and wanting to shut myself up and brood over my troubles, I make myself do something; I make myself search out someone who is suffering or needs help, and I try to do some little kindness to that person. In other words, I follow the simple gospel of doing. This practice has brought me, if not happiness, at least contentment and peace.”



5 Comments »

  1. Whoa. That’s a pretty shocking story. I never realized that some of the unhealthy ways we deal with grieving as a culture could be due to published material like this.

    There is no indication from her genealogical entries that Elsie C. Carroll lost a child. She was widowed at age 43, ten years before this, but this was published well after the original grief would have worn off.

    The core message of the story may be useful: that someone in a similar situation of great loss may be able by force of personality to empathize and kindly and unobtrusively model some of his or her own strategies for dealing with grief, but to put it simply, NEVER — ABSOLUTELY NEVER — IN ABSOLUTELY NO CIRCUMSTANCES — is it appropriate to tell a recently bereaved person to get over themselves, get over their grief, to deal with their grief by serving others, etc., etc.

    Did I say NEVER? I meant it. This story is unfortunate, not for the possibly biographical content about the comfort another grieving person may have offered, and how it may have helped the author (and it could have been real and vital comfort) but for the message women reading the magazine might have taken from it, if they had not had a similar loss of a child or spouse.

    Bottom line: Unless you’ve been through a loss of similar magnitude — and probably not even then — don’t preach or give advice to those in the acute stages of grief. (One to three years.) Just don’t.

    Comment by Amy T — May 5, 2014 @ 2:03 pm

  2. I’m going to give her two wee points, nonetheless:

    1. There are different ways of grieving, or different ways that grief is manifest, and no onlooker is justified in deciding whether someone is grieving “appropriately.” There is obvious disapproval of the gossipy, judgmental women at the opening of the story who do presume to decide.

    2. Too often we do offer “trite well-meant themes” in attempts at consolation, and I assume most of us would be like the narrator who was “grateful that she didn’t preach” those themes.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 5, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

  3. Oh, for the record, I’m not saying ECC got the story or advice wrong, just that people could so easily read an incorrect or harmful message out of the story. Charity, kindness, and service are always appropriate. Preaching, judging, and giving advice are not.

    Comment by Amy T — May 5, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

  4. Although it’s just fiction, I think there’s a big difference between preaching or giving advice and responding to a request for how you manage to cope with sorrow, which is what at the end of the story the author asks of Grace.

    Comment by Alison — May 10, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

  5. One of the kindest things anyone did for me after a close friend was killed was to call me up the day after it happened and ask me if I would like to help her children clean their rooms. She knew me well enough to know without my telling her how much I need to feel useful, and that I love her children, and that I would feel more consoled by that than by just about anything.

    When I served on the Stake Singles Committee in our area at this same time period, I used to talk about the need to help singles feel included in family life. The Stake Relief Society President basically always said, “Well, it’s your job to be friendly to us; we shouldn’t have to do anything special for singles.” I tried over and over again to explain that I was having my own needs (for a sense of inclusion in family life) met, but that it seemed obvious to me that if that hadn’t been the case, that particular hole would have been one of the most awful, life-force-eating chasms in my personal landscape.

    Comment by S — May 13, 2014 @ 12:57 am

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