After his wife's death, Otis Lord's letters to Dickinson began to take a more passionate tone. In fact, Dickinson and Lord almost seemed to conduct an affair by post. In 1878, Mrs. Dickinson fell and broke her hip, and Dickinson's nursing duties increased. Dickinson and Lord's correspondence from this time contains hints about an impending marriage.
Dickinson's old school friend Helen Fiske Hunt had begun writing, and was being published regularly. Dickinson and Hunt corresponded regularly, and Dickinson kept close tabs on her friend's literary successes. In 1863, Hunt's husband, Major Edward Bissell Hunt, had been killed in an explosion during the Civil War. Later, she had lost both of her children to illnesses. To distract herself from her grief, Hunt had taken to writing fiction under pseudonyms, usually "H.H." or "Saxe Holm." The same year her husband died, Hunt had been encouraged by Colonel Higginson to write for magazines, which she did. Under the Saxe Holme pseudonym, Helen Fiske Hunt wrote a short story called "Esther Wynn's Love Letters" featuring a lovelorn, reclusive poet who many people thought was modeled on Dickinson. When Hunt moved to Colorado after marrying a banker named William Jackson, she became intrigued by American Indians and the complexities of their experience. She wrote Ramona as a result of this fascination. Dickinson did not like much of Hunt's writing, but she was an ardent supporter and an unfailing friend. Hunt often tried to persuade Dickinson to get her poems published. In fact, she asked Dickinson to contribute a poem anonymously to an anthology called A Masque of Poets in the "No Name Series." Dickinson was reluctant and even wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, begging him to advise against submitting a poem, since she was too kindhearted to refuse Hunt without a valid excuse. Higginson refused, and so Dickinson finally contributed a poem called "Success is Counted Sweetest!" The book was published in 1878.
In 1882, Dickinson received an unexpected visitor: Dr. Charles Wadsworth. Twenty years had passed since the two had last seen each other. Wadsworth was sixty-eight years old, with three grown children. During their visit, Wadsworth told Dickinson that his youngest son William had, from the start, reminded him of Dickinson in his affection for all small plants and animals. A few months later, Dr. Wadsworth died of pneumonia. That same year, Dickinson received word that Otis Lord had suffered a stroke.
In September 1882, Dickinson's neighbor, a woman named Mabel Todd, came to visit Dickinson at the house. By this time, Dickinson was turning away nearly everyone who called on her. She did not turn Mabel away, although she did not exactly visit with her, either. She had Mabel wait for her in the parlor and while in the parlor, Mabel began playing the piano. Dickinson sat in the darkened hallway foyer and listened, then slipped into the kitchen and had her maid Maggie bring Mabel a glass of sherry and a poem. Dickinson then disappeared back upstairs. Mabel Todd was the vivacious wife of an astronomy professor at Amherst College and would, in the next few months, become Austin Dickinson's mistress. She had moved to Amherst from Washington, D.C. and felt out of place among the other academic wives–she was a young and spirited woman, a gifted piano player, a talented painter, and an aspiring writer. When Sue and Mabel had first met in 1881, Mabel had found Sue a fascinating, graceful woman, and hoped to form a meaningful friendship with her. Mrs. Todd had heard about Dickinson from Lavinia, whom she met at a party, but also from townspeople who called Dickinson "the Myth." Once Susan read Mabel a few Dickinson's poems, which intrigued and deeply impressed Mabel.
Meanwhile, Dickinson's mother had worsened and developed neuralgia, a painful condition that causes the sufferer to feel stabs of pain in the face. On November 13, 1882, Emily Norcross Dickinson died. In January of 1883, it had become obvious that Austin had taken an interest in Mabel, and Sue barred the woman from their home. She was banished for eight months until Austin finally insisted that Mabel be allowed to visit. Dickinson tried everything in her power to reconcile the two women, but nothing worked. To make matters worse, the loving relationship between Sue and Dickinson was strained because Dickinson allowed Austin and Mabel to meet in the living room of the Dickinson home.
In October of 1883, Gib fell gravely ill with typhoid fever. He died, leaving the family broken and distraught. Two years later, Helen Fiske Jackson died. It had an emotionally draining five years for Dickinson, and her health suffered as a result. Around this time, though, a Boston publisher began inquiring after Dickinson's poetry. Helen Fiske Jackson had told the publisher of to Dickinson's talent. Dickinson sent the publisher six poems in response to his inquiries, all of which dealt with nature in theme and imagery. The publisher decided to reject the poems for publication. This was a tremendous disappointment for Dickinson, and worsened the trauma of the death of her mother and the unexpected passing of her beloved nephew. She slowly began to lose interest in composition.