In The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks shows how many different members of a community try to make sense of a senseless tragedy. While some people have a better idea than others of why it might have occurred, no one has the full picture.
The aftermath includes the continued damage inflicted on survivors and the families of the dead by the truth and, perhaps even more, by lies. As pain and bitterness shape the various reactions and motivations for the stories about the accident, we learn about the weight of having carried those lies.
Dickinson's poem says we learn our emotional truths through actions as well as words—the human heart learns about Nothing from gifts and words, the Nothing that keeps us moving forward. Nichole, in particular, had learned a dark view of the world and uses her words for revenge, a kind of negative gift, on her father.