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Colonial and Victorian Era Grief

While few records exist from the early colonial period, those examined by historians, in the form of diaries and autobiographies, indicated expressions of grief. Smart argues that many of the records that were left behind from the colonial American era were written by men, and therefore, only express the male point of view. Fathers were often steadfast in their grieving and admonished mothers for their public displays of mourning. The following examples, however, illustrate how fathers were not always stoic in the face of a child’s death. For example, one father wrote upon the death of his four year old daughter “The grief for this child was so great that I forgot myself so much that I did offend God in it...I ...could not be comforted, although my friends spoke so comfortably to me.”8 In another example, William Palfrey writes in 1772 of his seven year old daughter “.I go about crying like a fool whenever I think of her”.9

Despite the above examples, the great majority of writing on grief demonstrates resignation to God’s will. Dye and Smith present the diary of a mother of twelve children, eight of whom died as infants, who describes her daughter’s death in these terse terms “Sept 9 It died about 8 o’clock in the morning. Sept 10 Was buried.” This account has been often quoted as an example of not only resignation to God’s will, but the demonstration of “due distance” from a child.10 The Puritan Thomas Skinner warned parents not to get too attached to their children as they may leave you “sighing and desolate”.11 Even when parents did not heed this advice, Puritan children were seen as wicked and depraved. Salvation was not available for Puritans; therefore, there was no comfort for parents that their children would rest in heaven, although clergymen would imply to grieving parents that the child’s soul would be saved. Nonetheless, parents were advised to grieve with self-control. The Virginia Gentry too were advised to temper their mourning with the comforting thought that another child might come to replace the one lost.12

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