'Aching hearts'

Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
The death of the diarist’s sister Lizzie Shober [1] fills pages in her manuscript diary. [2] Here, in the second installment (of three), Mrs. Gray gathers memories and impressions of her sister’s recent deathbed:

61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Tuesday, 12 December 1865: On Wednesday, Nov. 30, 1864, we laid our dear brother John[3] in the quiet church yard at St. James the less.[4] He died on Sunday the 27th. Just one year from that sad day, the darling of all our hearts, my sister Lizzie, lay at the last gasp apparently – and though she rallied for a few days of inexpressible comfort to us all, she too left us on Friday Dec 1st and was laid by his side, on just such a soft Indian summer [day] as we had for him, on Monday, Dec. 4th, 1865. She was so wasted and altered that I can not realize yet, that it was our bright cheery Lizzie we left there.

It was Suffering & Death we laid in the cold dark tomb, not our darling; even the profile was unnatural, all the sweet smiling lines, drawn & rigid – and the plain hair, parted back like a child’s, and cut short, for its length & weight distressed her so, looked so unlike the rich full puffs, every wave of which caught such a rich golden auburn glow, upon its lovely chestnut brown. No, no, it was not her we left there alone in the cold, darkness, and gloom; our sweet, loving, unselfish darling was safe enfolded in the Eternal Love, and rejoicing in “the Light that is not of the Sun nor of the Moon – but the Lamb is the Light thereof!”[5]

“I am content to leave it all in God’s hands – my soul is at the foot of the cross!”

On Tuesday [Nov.] 28th,[6] she talked quite coherently and distinctly most of the time, though throughout all the last days there was occasional wandering. The Revd. Dr. Morton of St. James[7] sat with her some time that day; and she seemed to take great comfort in his calm, soothing ministrations – and after he went, she said, “I am content to leave it all in God’s hands – my soul is at the foot of the cross!”

Later she said, “Life is very sweet, and I have so many to love and live for; O Nin,[8] I have tried so hard to live – but I can’t try any longer – I am so tired.”

And again, “Oh, dear girls,[9] if you could only lift this burden of life off me – you see I can’t do it for my self, I am so weary & worn out;” this was after a very distressed spell of restless exhaustion, and we felt with wrung hearts that we could better bear to give her up than see her suffer, or to meet the appealing glance of her large pathetic eyes, and know our helplessness to aid her.

Next morning she talked to Dr. Evans. “Dr., doesn’t thee think that perhaps God has given me another chance for life?”

“Yes, dear Lizzie.”

“Well, if he has, don’t thee think it right for me to try to live – life is such a great gift.”

[And] then, “But I am willing to go, if it be God’s will – I know I have been very selfish and worldly – that I am utterly unworthy – I think if I were spared, I would be very different – don’t thee believe I would, dear Dr.?” and turning with very distressed face to Sue [Shober], who was holding her hand on the other side of the bed,

“Dear Suzie make him believe me, tell him I am speaking truth, not mere sham talk, because I am lying on this sick bed – I do feel God is with me, that he has forgiven and will accept me, I hope, all unworthy as I am.”

"I know I have been very selfish and worldly – that I am utterly unworthy – I think if I were spared, I would be very different..."

Our dear friend & doctor hastened to pacify her with soothing assurances, & the momentary agitation subsided. That morning, Wed’y November 29th, Dr. Morton administered the “Holy Communion” to her; Mrs. Shober[10] and Camilla Lewis[11] kneeling just inside the room partook the sacred rite with her and her sisters. They had neither of them seen her before, since her return home. She had been too ill to see any one – any nervous excitement was so dreaded for her. She followed the service understandingly and, and at the words “Therefore with angels & archangels” joined in loud, clear, hollow tones, but thrillingly sweet – and responded so, all through to the close of the Gloria in Excelsis. She seemed much exhausted after it, and soon fell into a sweet sleep.

Once she recognized me across the room and said “Nin, dear, I think God will accept me.”

I went to her and said, kissing her, “Yes, precious, I am very sure he has accepted you.”

Are you sure?”

“Very sure; have no fears – his love and his grace will uphold you even though you pass through the valley of the shadow of death. His love, in whom you trust, casteth out fear.”

“Yes,” she said, “I know it; I do believe – and I will not fear!”

But on Thursday afternoon, she awoke from a distressed sleep, with all the mortal dread & shrinking upon her and, seizing my hand, said “Oh, dear Nin, I am so afraid!”

“Don’t be afraid, darling. Our Father’s love is ever about you. He will be with you through the deep waters – trust Him, without faltering. He will make all bright and safe.”

“Yes, yes, I know – but still, it frightens me so.”

With choking voice I repeated one or two of the blessed promises, so strength giving, and she soon became calm. It was no doubt partly nervous prostration, aroused from sick uneasy dreams; but it was also the mortal shrinking of her bright, glad vitality before the cold obstruction of the grave – the instinctive shuddering horror as the cold dark shadow closed around her, shutting out forever the Glad Sunshine which she had only that morning looked at with longing, loving eyes, when [_____][12] [and] called “so beautiful!”

[She] loved life – this warm, breathing, loving, and suffering life...

This, as far as I know, was her last struggle with the horror of death. She had to a marked degree, a natural instinctive dread of death – and never hesitated to confess to it; she loved life – this warm, breathing, loving, and suffering life – and never liked to hear any talk disparagingly of it; or seem to undervalue what she deemed such a sweet privilege. The mortal agony which is not Death itself, but the fear of Death, came no more to her.

At 12 o’c. Thursday night, after she had taken her anodyne and lay partly sleeping & partly in dull exhaustion, Mary [Shober] and I left her with nurse & Sallie [Shober], and went to bed. Poor Moll was very loth to go but we insisted upon it – Dr. & nurse both said Lizzie might linger weeks in this state – she must not disable herself by refusing needful rest. She was in fact utterly exhausted by her long attendance & anxious watching & hoping.

Towards six o’c on Friday morning, Sallie called us – they noticed a marked change, and nurse [thought] we had better come up. This was indeed the hand of Death; the gray shadow stealing over the wasted face, the cold hands & feet, the short intermitting breath, the restless working of the thin hands, and the difficulty of swallowing all showed us, our darling had stepped down into the dark river, whence she would soon “go up on the heavenly side.”

We none of us thought to hear her voice again, till we too should join her in the heavenly choir – but about 8½ o’c. she succeeded in swallowing a spoonful of brandy & cream – and soon after began to speak in half formed inarticulate words which no one could understand, ending with “promise me, Moll – Nin – promise.”

“Yes, darling, be content, we promise that all your wishes shall be fulfilled as far as we know them and can do them.”

“Then remember, you are perjured if you do not.”

It was very painful, for we could not understand a word of all she had said, up to the word “promise.” After a pause of exhaustion she rambled again in the same way – a word that we caught here & there, seemed to refer to my children – and especially Mary [Gray][13] & her young friends in whom she always took so much interest – and she said distinctly “Tell them – tell them – all those sweet young girls, to pray.”

After another pause, she suddenly spoke out clearly, but in hollow, sweet tones: “He has been tried & found true; promised – I will never leave thee, nor— Oh, God, I bless thee for it. Kneel down, dear girls, and bless God for me. He is with me, for-ever. ‘And now I have closed up – all; come round.’” These words came out in broken sentences – a word or two at a time, with great effort, but clear & coherent. Just as if she had summoned up her last energies to utter for our unspeakable comfort her dying testimony to the sustaining grace of God’s love, leading her timid soul by the sweet waters of everlasting life, though beneath the Shadow of Death; upholding her in such calm, conscious trust that Death had lost its sting – the grave its victory!

She smiled sweetly upon us all as we gathered closer round her bed, and sank away once more; about 9 o’c. Dr. Evans came, and spoke loudly to arrest her – she roused up – gave him a long, earnest look – and said “Doctor!” [Then] with a parting smile, ineffably sweet, looked once more at each sorrowful face around her – closed her eyes – and never more on earth opened them. About 5 minutes before 10 there came a longer breath – a pause – and silence; no more audible breath – only a quivering of the nostril a while longer – and, closely as we watched her, none of us could be actually certain when she sank to sleep in Jesus.

Only the day before her death, Dr. & nurse both thought she might rally and be about the house for months. Her pulse was so strong – but we sisters saw she was daily sinking. Now we feel with aching hearts, how much more we might have done to cheer & sustain her if we had only dared; so many sweet promises rose to my lips while sitting beside her, which I was afraid to utter, for fear of agitating her, and bringing on the nervous distress and hard breathing – and I know it was so with the other girls, too. Alas, alas, do we ever lose a friend, and not look tearfully back on neglected opportunities of offering kindness, encouragement, sympathy?

Concluded here.


[1] Elizabeth Kearney Shober (1821–1865).

[2] Hedwiga Regina Shober (1818–1885) was married to Dr. Francis Henry Gray 1844–80. Entry from the Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections.

[3] John Bedford Shober (1814–1864).

[4] In Philadelphia.

[5] Paraphrasing Revelations 21: 23.

[6] The day after Mrs. Gray and her son Frank Gray arrived in Philadelphia.

[7] The Rev. Dr. Henry Jackson Morton (1807–1890).

[8] The diarist’s nickname in the Shober family.

[9] Lizzie’s sisters Mary Morris Shober (1816–1873), Mrs. Gray, Susanna Budd Shober (1823–1898?), and Sarah Morris Shober (1825–1917).

[10] The diarist’s stepmother, Lucy Hall Bradlee (1806–1902), who was married to Samuel Lieberkuhn Shober 1830–47.

[11] A Shober cousin.

[12] Missing text.

[13] Mrs. Gray’s only daughter Mary Clay Gray (1848–1923).

Scott C. Steward

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.View all posts by Scott C. Steward