Grieving and the Oblong Box

an-oblong-box-courtesy-of-handes-blog  There is an obscure short story by Edgar Allan Poe called “The Oblong Box,” and recently I had my beginner composition students write a literary analysis about it. The story is told from the first-person perspective of an unnamed narrator who must travel by boat from South Carolina to New York. He’s pleased to find out that among the other passengers, there’s an old artist friend and his new wife traveling. The narrator has never met the artist’s wife, but in past conversations the artist has regaled her beauty and goodness, so the narrator is looking forward to being properly introduced. The trip is delayed a few days (due to unforeseen circumstances, says the captain), but finally the narrator boards the ship, only to find his artist friend in a foul mood, the artist’s new wife looking decidedly plain yet flirting wildly with the other men on the boat, and the pair accompanied by a large oblong box addressed to his wife’s mother in New York. The narrator assumes the large box contains a painting, a replica of “The Last Supper,” though the contrast between the new wife’s appearance and what he had been told by her artist husband has him stumped. The narrator later learns [spoiler alert] that the artist’s dead wife is in the box, and the woman pretending to be his wife is her maid. The deception was necessary because at the time of the story, passengers would refuse to sail on a ship that was transporting a dead body. After a turbulent storm sinks the ship enroute, the crew and passengers must flee to the lifeboat. The artist refuses to leave the oblong box and instead, he ties himself to it and jumps overboard with it to his death.

I find this story insightful when considering the importance of the grieving process. The artist, wracked with grief over the loss of his wife, could tell no one, not even his narrator friend, that his beloved wife had died. He could not grieve what he had lost, nor could he receive support from others as he made the slow transition back to a new normal. Few people would discount the importance of grieving when it comes to deep losses, such as the loss of a loved one. However, the nature of human life is one of change and impermanence, and it’s worth considering how important it is to handle all of life’s changes in a similar fashion.

The book of Lamentations shows us that the nation of Israel was no stranger to grief, longing for what was once good but had passed away. The first chapter and first verse in Lamentations reveal the grieving that took place over Jerusalem’s destruction: “How deserted lies the city, /once so full of people! / How like a widow is she, /who once was great among the nations!/ She who was queen among the provinces /has now become a slave” (NIV). This poem demonstrates that acknowledging something good and beautiful is gone is the first part of grieving.

Sometimes the change is for something just as good or maybe better. However, any change means that something is being left behind, even if it is just the familiar. If it is something that you don’t want to let go of, it is important to be thankful for what you had and acknowledge your loss as you let it go. This could be the loss of youth or the loss of a career, but any change, even good change, means that something is going to be different. And this difference brings uncertainty.

By allowing ourselves to grieve the change and impermanence we face as human beings, we are better equipped to handle the uncertainty that comes from learning to live with different circumstances or in some new way. We reach out to others for support and comfort until we find our new normal, and we permit God to minister to us through others. By allowing ourselves to feel and express our loss and our uncertainty, we navigate the waters of grief without tying ourselves to that oblong box and throwing ourselves overboard.

~by Nan Kuhlman

photo courtesy of Hande’s blog



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