Poetry as a Healing Power in Grief

Some time ago I wrote an article for Hello Grief about grief and music. The article received a number of comments and lists of additional songs that have helped others on their grief journey. This response has emboldened me to share what, for me and others I know, is a similar power for healing that can be found in poetry.

Poetry is not for everyone, but it works for me. Like lyrics in a song (which is poetry set to music), it can speak to the heart in ways that prose cannot.

I once read a poem at a Comfort Zone Camp Saturday night bonfire, where we say good by to loved ones lost. The poem’s title is “Lost” and is based on a Native American legend of advice from an elder to a youth. Later that evening, a teen with Down’s Syndrome asked me if she could read it at the Sunday memorial service. “I often feel lost since daddy died in the tower,” she said, “and the words helped.” I was incredibly touch when she read it.

Mary Oliver, one of our poet laureates, writes, “Poetry is prayer, it is passion and music, it is beauty, comfort, it is agitation, declaration, it is thanksgiving…Often poetry is the gate to a new life…It brings new thoughts or welcome remembrance of old ones. It offers simple pleasure, complicated joy, and even, at times, healing.”

Of course poetry is really meant to be heard and not just read. If you want to explore whether or not poetry is for you, I suggest going to YouTube, and searching the word “poetry.”* If you like it, then go to the library or book store, and check out an author that spoke to you. Some will make you laugh or smile, others will touch the sad part of you, and a few will open your eyes and heart to life.

Here’s a taste from poems that speak to me on my grief journey. I hope they will speak to you as well.

Lost – David Wagoner (To me, the message of this poem has been “Stand still” – quiet down – it may be different for you).

Stand still. The trees and the bushes beside you

are not lost. Where ever you are is called Here,

and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

you are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows

where you are. You must let it find you.

The Dead – Billy Collins1 (I read this in the local paper the day after 9/11)

The dead are always looking down on us they say,

while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,

they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats

of heaven as they row through eternity.

They watch the top of our heads moving on earth,

and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,

drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,

they think we are looking back at them.

Which makes them lift their oars and fall silent

and wait like parents for us to close our eyes.

Heavy – Mary Oliver2 (Written after the death of her life-long partner)

That time

I thought I could not

go any closer to grief

without dying.

I went closer,

and I did not die.

Surley God

had His hand in this,

as well as friends.

Still I was bent,

and my laughter,

as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.

Then said my friend Daniel

(brave even among lions),

“It is not the weight you carry

but how you carry it—

books, bricks, grief—

it’s all in the way

you embrace it, balance it, carry it

When you cannot, and would not,

put it down.”

So I went practicing.

Have you noticed?

Have you heard

the laughter

that comes, now and again,

out of my startled mouth?

How I linger

to admire, admire

the things of this world

that are kind and maybe

also troubled—

roses in the wind,

The sea geese on the steep waves,

a love

to which there is no reply?

When Death Comes –Mary Oliver (Reminds me to make the most of life, and of my mother and others who made the most of out of their lives)

When death comes

Like the hungry bear in autumn,

When death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

To buy me, and snaps the purse shut;

When death comes like the measle pox;

When death comes

Like an iceburg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything

as a brotherhood and sisterhood,

and I look upon time as no more than an idea,

and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common

as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,

tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something

precious to the earth.

When it is over I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made my life something particular and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

If poetry also speaks to you, and has helped you in your grief journey, please share with me and the group as a comment below.

* * * * * * * * *

*On YouTube, check out the Geraldine Dodge Poetry link for exceptional  poetry readings by some of the world’s most recognized modern poets.

1 Sailing Alone Around the Room -2001

2 Thirst -2006

Photo Credit.

23 Comments:

  1. Claire Forsyth said on July 23, 2010 at 3:26 pm ... #

    Thanks for your thoughts. Here are a couple of my favorite poems:

    Do not stand at my grave and weep,
    I am not there, I do not sleep.

    I am a thousand winds that blow.
    I am the diamond glint on snow.
    I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
    I am the gentle autumn rain.

    When you wake in the morning hush,
    I am the swift, uplifting rush
    Of quiet birds in circling flight.
    I am the soft starlight at night.

    Do not stand at my grave and weep.
    I am not there, I do not sleep.
    Do not stand at my grave and cry.
    I am not there, I did not die!
    ~~ Mary Elizabeth Frye

    Earth teach me quiet ~ as the grasses are still with new light.
    Earth teach me suffering ~ as old stones suffer with memory.
    Earth teach me humility ~ as blossoms are humble with beginning.
    Earth teach me caring ~ as mothers nurture their young.
    Earth teach me courage ~ as the tree that stands alone.
    Earth teach me limitation ~ as the ant that crawls on the ground.
    Earth teach me freedom ~ as the eagle that soars in the sky.
    Earth teach me acceptance ~ as the leaves that die each fall.
    Earth teach me renewal ~ as the seed that rises in the spring.
    Earth teach me to forget myself ~ as melted snow forgets its life.
    Earth teach me to remember kindness ~ as dry fields weep with rain.
    ~~An Ute Prayer

  2. Alisha said on July 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm ... #

    “When it is over…I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

    What a beautiful reminder to each of us to be present, to take things in, to be active participants in our own lives, no matter what has happened in the past.

    Bill, once again, your words & the way you share the words of others has touched my heart. Thank you.

  3. Elizabeth Lee said on July 24, 2010 at 1:28 pm ... #

    Such wonderful poems! Each strikes a note with me and makes me recall that I too can write, and should. It’s all just a bit too close right now so as someone wrote “Waiting is.” In the meanwhile, I’ll visit here frequently and find these words that help me express myself. Bless you all!

  4. WysWoods said on July 25, 2010 at 6:08 am ... #

    I just did a Missionaries Conference and the title was “Grief: A Butterfly’s view and vision. Although I have taught grief Sessions for ten years and and did my DMin thesis on Grief, I had never focused on the future after a grief experience. I have written poetry as a response to death and dying for more than 25 years and I beleive I found this site because God is guiding me to take this grief work to a level of the buterfly’s view and vision.

  5. WysWoods said on July 25, 2010 at 6:18 am ... #

    A Restored Butterfly for Wy

    I sit here trying to understand why
    The time came and you used your wings to fly
    I know that the circle of life includes a move
    It seems that the move came so very soon
    O Sweet Butterfly wrapped in pretty paints
    Did you get a call to go with the saints?
    O lovely Butterfly with wings of flight
    I wish I could see you this night
    O Restored Butterfly, no matter how I try
    I can’t stop thinking and I have to cry
    But you know I love to see you fly
    Yes. Yes, Yes,
    You are a Restored Butterfly for Wy
    Written 2001/ Revised 2010

  6. Registered Nurse said on August 3, 2010 at 11:29 am ... #

    The following is a poem written by my son for his sister, who died after a 2 year battle with cancer. We are grieving her loss, she died only one month ago.
    My Sister the Fighter
    Cancer picked a fight with my sister.
    But what cancer did not know was that my sister is a fighter.
    She fought and fought cancer
    And so cancer decided to start a war.

    Cancer started a war with my sister.
    But what cancer did not know was that my sister is a warrior.
    She battled and battled against cancer
    And so cancer decided to go on a crusade.

    Cancer went on a crusade against my sister.
    But what cancer did not know and does not know and can never know
    Is that my sister is an Angel.
    And in that place where she now resides, not cancer nor any other torment
    Can touch her ever again.

  7. Steve Fleharty said on August 3, 2010 at 12:01 pm ... #

    My wife’s death from cancer over 10 years ago was and will always be the most traumatic experience in my life. I’d never written poetry until her death, but felt compelled to do so thereafter. Here are two of my poems:

    IN MY HEART
    by Stephen Fleharty

    I’ll never kiss your lips again
    Nor touch your soft and tender skin.
    Not look into your eyes of blue
    Nor whisper secrets just we knew.

    I’ll never see your smile so bright
    Nor sense your breathing late at night.
    Not share the future’s bold frontier
    Made with plans we held so dear.

    My love for you will endure.
    Of that, I am very sure.
    And although we are far apart,
    Forever is where you’re in my heart.

    You had to leave, not wanting to,
    Gone to a place that we both knew
    Was finer even than this life
    Which has times of woe and strife.

    The years we spent, I will cherish
    Until the day that I, too, perish.
    On that day, we’ll start anew
    The love that bonded us so true.

    My love for you will endure.
    Of that, I am very sure.
    And although we are far apart,
    Forever is where you’re in my heart.

    WHAT NOW?
    by Stephen Fleharty

    Twilight is past and darkness reigns.
    The mem’ries of light, too, fade.
    The future predicts unbridled pain
    For me – a masquerade.

    Awake, I face fate’s cruel test
    Of bearing one more day,
    The absence of your loving breast
    And your sweet bouquet.

    Love is strong, yet can’t deny
    The embers that remain
    Will fail to soothe my mournful sigh,
    Which I cannot contain.

    My days are spent as one destroyed
    And wondering without hope
    Of why I cannot fill this void
    And why I cannot cope.

    ‘Til death doth claim me and my soul
    I shall love thee still.
    ‘Til then it is my lonesome role
    To accept God’s will.

  8. Bill said on August 3, 2010 at 2:38 pm ... #

    I just want to say how much I am moved by your response. What wonderful sentiments and poetry from the heart. I know they will speak to others who visit here.

  9. D. Clark said on August 11, 2010 at 6:14 pm ... #

    When my sister lost her husband in March the grief for her was so great she died just 4 months later. I was haunted and healed by this song which I think captures what she must have felt the last 4 months of her life.

    Hurricane
    Mindy Smith

    I felt the faint trace of thunder
    Rattle this old house
    I saw the fire light the sky
    But there’s no sign of rain anywhere

    I need a hurricane
    To empty out this place
    Seems its the only way
    To salvage any sense I have left to move on.

    I’m waiting to hear your voice again
    And lighten up this heart
    I’m holding on to stupid memories
    But I see you in every little thing

    I need a hurricane
    To straighten out this place
    It may be the only way
    To salvage any sense I have left to move on

    I need a hurricane
    To ravage through this place
    Think it’s the only way
    To salvage any sense I have left to move on

    I felt the faint trace of thunder
    But there’s no sign of rain anywhere
    No, there’s no sign of you anywhere

  10. ally harvey said on August 18, 2010 at 3:34 pm ... #

    i wrote this for my husband a few months after he died,he died at home from multiple organ failure following an mrsa infection.

    i miss your face, kiss your head, hold your hand, hear your voice,touch your skin,feel you close, help you, hold you, speak
    your name, all forbidden pastures in my pain. wishing, praying,standing, walking, staying in the moment, trying so hard for you baby..i love you.

  11. ally harvey said on August 18, 2010 at 3:37 pm ... #

    i also wrote this for Ian.its called…
    PRECIOUS.
    a moment in time, a look, intertwined,
    a stroke of my face, how you walk at my pace,
    you catch my eye, across the room, and suddenly, im not alone,
    an understanding of expression, no need for words, magical unison.
    a dance, our story, mesmerising,
    a captivating whirl, a breathless girl, precious,
    the most precious thing i ever touched, and parted with

  12. Nancy said on September 21, 2010 at 12:57 pm ... #

    Thanks to all of you for all the lovely poetry. I
    lost my son, forty-six years old, when he was on a service mission on Dale Hollow Lake at our family-owned marina. I am raising his teenage daughter now and can well identify with her since my father died when I was her age. I have written poetry about my father’s death that I shared with my seven siblings and I intend to write more in the future, but this death is too traumatic at this time for me to get my thoughts on paper. It’s been three months and I don’t cry as much but I am disoriented and tend to isolate myself more partly because I am so bone-weary from all my new responsibilities thought I am so blessed with my grand daughter’s presence.

    Again, thanks. You really touched my heartstrings with your beautiful thoughts.

  13. Sneha said on November 2, 2010 at 8:13 pm ... #

    You can shed tears that she is gone,
    or you can smile because she has lived.
    You can close your eyes and pray that she’ll come back,
    or you can open your eyes and see all she’s left.
    Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her,
    or you can be full of the love you shared.
    You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
    or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
    You can remember her only that she is gone,
    or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
    You can cry and close your mind,
    be empty and turn your back.
    Or you can do what she’d want:
    smile, open your eyes, love and go on.
    ~ David Harkins

    I really love this poem

  14. Sara said on December 7, 2010 at 11:33 pm ... #

    Thankyou so much for all of the beautiful poetry…. It has helped me deal with some of the pain of losing my 15 year old sister just this July.

  15. Doug said on February 23, 2011 at 4:56 pm ... #

    Mother

    Mother, when they killed the sacred cow,
    I watched until I could no longer see.
    Now I kill the sacred cows
    Of my own life, unaware
    Of what I do.

    But when you have been silenced,
    Moving through forbidden darkness,
    Then you are the sacred cow,
    And I am part of a procession
    Streaming through a column of trees
    Which marks the steps of my way.

    How long will I destroy
    My own footsteps in the grass and mud?
    When the quiet waves of morning wash
    Across the boundaries of life and death
    (the only thing that keeps me from you now),
    Your death becomes a flood,
    And I become the sacred cow,
    Sacrificed to your everlasting memory.

    (my mother died suddenly when I was 5 years old)

  16. sally said on March 31, 2011 at 9:50 am ... #

    Please send a poem re my 31 yr old son, my baby, killed suddenly, in a car accident

  17. sally said on March 31, 2011 at 9:51 am ... #

    please send me a poem for my son 31, that was my baby, took suddenly in tragic car accident, while all alone

  18. Anonymous said on April 6, 2011 at 2:14 pm ... #

    Did you guys know that your elbow’s tip is called a weenis/wenis? I find that amusing.

  19. Mark Halperin said on May 4, 2013 at 7:56 am ... #

    Poem written after my best friend’s dad died.

    Having nothing, doing nothing, wanting nothing.
    I am in a pine box.
    It is dark. It is quiet

    I’m a bird.
    I’m the sky.
    I am a running brook.
    I’m in love.

  20. Kathy said on May 26, 2013 at 10:53 pm ... #

    I am new to this site. I lost my beloved 18yr old son almost 5yrs ago. There are several poems that have been healing to me, but the absolute best was the one I am sharing that I received the day after his death. Not only is it a great comfort, but it sounds just like his personality, I try to read it everyday. I hope that it brings comfort to others out there.
    Blessings.

    Death is nothing at all
    I have only slipped away into the next room
    I am I and you are you
    Whatever we were to each other
    That we are still
    Call me by my old familiar name
    Speak to me in the easy way you always used
    Put no difference into your tone
    Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
    Laugh as we always laughed
    At the little jokes we enjoyed together
    Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
    Let my name be ever the household word that it always was
    Let it be spoken without effort
    Without the ghost of a shadow in it
    Life means all that it ever meant
    It is the same as it ever was
    There is absolute unbroken continuity
    What is death but a negligible accident?
    Why should I be out of mind
    Because I am out of sight?
    I am waiting for you, for an interval
    Somewhere very near
    Just around the corner
    All is well
    Nothing is past; nothing is lost
    One brief moment and all will be as it was before
    How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

    Here is one more poem written by the same author of the one above:

    THE HORIZON

    Life is eternal, and love is immortal,
    And death is only a horizon;
    And a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.

    Rossiter Worthington Raymond

    I am standing upon the seashore.
    A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.
    She is an object of beauty and strength.
    I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud on the horizon,
    Just where the sea and the sky come to mingle with one another.
    Then someone at my side says: “There, she is gone.”
    “Gone where?”
    Gone from my sight. That is all.
    She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side,
    And she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
    Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
    And just at the moment when someone at my side says,
    “There, she is gone,” there are other eyes watching her coming,
    And other voices ready to take up the glad shout:
    “Here she comes!”
    And that is dying.
    Henry Scott Holland

  21. Adriana said on June 13, 2013 at 1:42 am ... #

    I came across this site during a search for words of hope to offer my mother. My brother was murdered in February of last year. We are all still taking it very hard. especially my Mother. I want to thank those of you who shared poems, thoughts,stories of grief. this site has warmed my heart. I have sent my mom some of these poems and they seemed to have helped some.

  22. Lee Reich said on September 9, 2014 at 4:40 pm ... #

    Are we able to submit our own poetry for consideration to assist others on their grief journeys?

    Thank you.

  23. admin said on October 3, 2014 at 4:46 pm ... #

    Yes, Lee. Please email hellogrief@comfortzonecamp.org

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