Loss of a beloved: Little Women and the valley of the shadow

By Trix Wilkins

It’s a thing from which one never fully recovers. The feeling is hard to describe. Like a hollowness in the soul, like something that had been a part of oneself is somehow gone and can never be recovered. Healing and joy, yes. That one-step-one-day-at-a-time sort of endurance, yes. Being what one was before the loss, no. There is no lost opportunity like losing time with a beloved – especially when one was expecting a lifetime of memories together, like Jo had anticipated, had prayed, had hoped, for herself and her sister Beth.

sunlight-in-mountain-valley-6016x4016_19822‘Sunlight in mountain valley’ courtesy of ABSFreePic

Jo & Beth in the valley of the shadow

I used to pass over this chapter in Little Women after the first reading. Jo having to watch her dearest sister slip through her fingers, knowing the inevitability of losing her, the grief that would be sure to mark her every hour henceforth. And as beautifully written as these passages were – for how Louisa May Alcott loved her own sister Elizabeth! – I would feel a share of that dread upon reading them, the possibility of my losing someone so beloved.

Now, this passage is a comfort. How many of these words now resonate in my soul. My grandfather passed away this week, and while the pain of losing a grandparent is not the same as losing a sister, how I feel these words. How thankful I am for this beautiful, personal, moving chapter that must have given voice to all that Louisa herself felt upon losing Elizabeth, and gives voice to all who have ever known such loss.

For, with eyes made clear by many years, and a heart softened by the tenderest sorrow, she recognized the beauty of her sister’s life – uneventful, unambitious, yet full of the genuine virtues which “smell sweet, and blossom in the dust;” the self-forgetfulness that makes the humblest on earth remembered soonest in heaven, the true success which is possible to all. Louisa May Alcott, The Valley of the Shadow, Little Women.

A personal tribute

I meant to finish writing this before my grandfather passed away.

I started thinking about the valley of the shadow when he first fell ill. Then he seemed to recover from each dip – he was so tenacious, and I assumed there was more time to tell him I loved and admired him; to tell him exactly those moments between us that have been a part of me ever since.

This was meant to be a tribute, and he was meant to read it. I am now left with the poor substitute of writing this for my own comfort. Perhaps one day it will comfort others who loved him; and still others who have walked through their own valley of the shadow.

One of the reasons I love reading Little Women is that Mr March and Mr Laurence remind me very much of my grandfather. The most important thing he wanted for his children was education – all the more remarkable, I think, for his being the father of seven daughters (an example for all the Mrs Bennetts of the world…).

At the front of his house he had custom-made plaques displayed. Each child has their own, updated with every new accomplishment – bachelors, masters, doctorates, etc. I love looking at these plaques, especially my mother’s – for she graduated from metallurgical engineering, the only one of his daughters to have done so.

I don’t doubt that every child who came home to see their name above the porch – a sure sign of his pride in their triumphs – was spurred to keep learning, keep persevering (and maybe seek to have just one more engraved line than their siblings).

My grandfather and I lived in different countries most of my life. Yet somehow he loomed a large figure to me. My mother spoke often of him – of his tenacity, his humor, and his compassion.

He was a businessman and he aimed to provide for his family and employ people to help enable them to provide for their own families. His dream for a bigger business was so that he could hire more people, not less – he sought the power to give others livelihoods. I never saw him ‘in action’ but he had to have been good at making money – no small feat to put nine children (he had two sons in addition to the seven daughters) through tertiary education. Yet money was not the end goal for him.

The day I told my grandfather I had withdrawn from a law degree is seared in my memory. I had quit law to study journalism and mortified my parents.

The look I had anticipated was forthcoming: he looked disgusted, like I had told him I’d cut off my hand and traded it for a handbag. Then he looked relieved, and smiled approvingly.

“Ah, good! You will not be a lawyer. That is good. So you will be a newspaperwoman? Good. It is not easy. Very dangerous.” He then patted my hand and chuckled a little to himself.

I remember thinking with no small amount of happiness, “He must think I’ll either be good enough to make a difference or smart enough not to get killed trying.” That was no small compliment for a seventeen year old. (Whether I actually was or not was not the point. I loved the fact that he thought I was.)

The last time I saw my grandfather, my fiancé (now husband) came with me to meet him. We played Scrabble. My grandfather, my mother, and I all share a penchant for Scrabble (my husband does not, but he amiably played along).

In Casablanca Rick tells Ilsa, “We’ll always have Paris.” For the three generations of our family, “We’ll always have Scrabble.” When there are no more memories to be had, we could play in his memory.

One of his favorite words to play was JO. (Nothing to do with Little Women and everything to do with the value of the letter J, but I’ve always thought that was a special connection between us.) Another of his favorite words was EX, which he took invariable pleasure in extending with an S later in the game, laughing at the reactions of his unmarried grandchildren (and the suitors they brought to meet him).

He was a joy to listen to, to talk to, to laugh with – and to remember. Yet how it aches to love him still, and know that I would not be who I am without him.

“Have I really been all that to you, Jo?” she asked, with wistful, humble earnestness.

“Oh, Beth, so much, so much!” and Jo’s head went down upon the pillow, beside her sister’s.

“Then I don’t feel as if I’d wasted my life…It’s such a comfort to know that someone loves me so much, and feels as if I’d helped them.”

6 thoughts on “Loss of a beloved: Little Women and the valley of the shadow

  1. So lovely! Somehow I feel he has read it somehow.

    I think Alcott’s best writing is about suffering, death and grief. My first foray into her works was Hospital Sketches — the scene with John Suhre was so comforting to me as I had just lost my mother. But even more so was reading about Beth’s death again, from my mother’s worn copy of Little Women. I had felt numb after she died of a protracted illness and the tears came as I read her book and felt close to her again thanks to that chapter. Chapter 42, “Alone,” is, I think, the best chapter of the whole book. It is authentic, candid and moving, showing how Jo dealt with her grief, allowing it to change her from a child into a mature young woman ready to allow someone outside the family to love her.

    Thank you for sharing this. I am very sorry for your loss. May he rest in peace.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing, it is such a comfort to ‘be alongside’ someone in grief, and be understood. I didn’t realize it when I first read her writing, but the more I read of Louisa May Alcott, I’m so inclined to agree with what you said about her best writing being about grief and suffering. I found Hospital Sketches a hard read at first, but how poetic her language is in that novel, yet still full of truth and heart and not pretension. When I first read Marmee and Louisa and of the loss of the real Beth, Elizabeth Alcott, it was hard to stop crying, realizing just how real and raw those emotions would have been to Louisa to have experienced that. I have a sister and can only begin to imagine the pain of that loss.


    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to say so 🙂 I’ve been realizing lately how many details are yet to be found in LW even after multiple readings! Love books like that. Feel the same about Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion 🙂


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