THE SUBJECT OF DEATH, including her own death, occurs throughout Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters. Although some find the preoccupation morbid, hers was not an unusual mindset for a time and place where religious attention focused on being prepared to die and where people died of illness and accident more readily than they do today. Nor was it an unusual concern for a sensitive young woman who lived fifteen years of her youth next door to the town cemetery.
Original Dickinson family gravestones
Photo: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections
Original Dickinson family gravestones at West Cemetery
Emily Dickinson and Health
Thomas Gilbert (Gib) Dickinson
The Posthumous Discovery of Dickinson's Poems
Domestic Labor in the Dickinson Family Households
The poet’s death on 15 May 1886 came after two and a half years of ill health. From the time her nephew Gib died in October 1883 and she suffered a consequent “nervous prostration,” Dickinson became what her sister termed “delicate.” On two later occasions she experienced “blackouts,” and she was confined to bed for the seven months preceding her death.
During the 1880s Dickinson also endured the loss of several close friends - Charles Wadsworth, Judge Otis P. Lord, and Helen Hunt Jackson - and several family members, including Gib and her mother. The effect of these strains, the symptoms of severe headache and nausea mentioned in her letters, and her deathbed coma punctuated by raspy and difficult breathing, have led researchers to conclude that she died of heart failure induced by severe hypertension (high blood pressure).
Dickinson’s Amherst physician, Dr. Otis F. Bigelow, was handicapped in assisting his patient by her reclusiveness, for she would not admit him to her bedside to take a pulse. “She would walk by the open door of a room in which I was seated – Now, what besides mumps could be diagnosed that way!” he is supposed to have said (Years and Hours, Vol. I,...
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