Poems About Grief and Grieving

Creative Coping / Creative Coping : Litsa


When we asked our community of grievers to share their favorite poems about grief, we expected a handful of submissions. Within an hour we had dozens. So many shared how important poetry has been in their grief. This should not have been a surprise.

There is an intersection when a poem about grief meets a person in the depth of their deepest loss. Something is created in that space. A grief poem can be powerful to any reader. It can be painful and beautiful. But in the space where griever intersects with grief poetry, it is something unique and powerful.

In philosophy and aesthetics, there is much discussion around the concept of the sublime. Schopenhauer suggested that people experience the full feeling of the sublime when faced by the overwhelming, turbulent power of nature. A power so great it can destroy you – an avalanche, a volcano. I have often thought that, in grief, when we observe art that captures the depths of loss, it taps into the sublime. A philosopher of aesthetics would rip me to shreds, but I stand by this. When one who has been destroyed by grief sees that captured in poetry, it is not abstract. It is not theoretical. It is facing the destruction that one has felt in their own loss.

What we hope to create here is a space to better understand why we live this pain and then find comfort, solace, even pleasure, as we find it in art. We ask you to read these poems and share what they bring to your grief and what your grief brings to these poems. Share your thoughts about any or all of the three poems below in the comments. And in the coming weeks, stay tuned for more grief poetry posts.

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.


What the Living Do by Marie Howe

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

Catastrophe Is Next to Godliness by Franny Choi

Lord, I confess I want the clarity of catastrophe but not the catastrophe.
Like everyone else, I want a storm I can dance in.
I want an excuse to change my life.

The day A. died, the sun was brighter than any sun.
I answered the phone, and a channel opened
between my stupid head and heaven, or what was left of it. The blankness
stared back; and I made sound after sound with my blood-wet gullet.
O unsayable—O tender and divine unsayable, I knew you then:
you line straight to the planet’s calamitous core; you moment moment moment;
you intimate abyss I called sister for a good reason.

When the Bad Thing happened, I saw every blade.
And every year I find out what they’ve done to us, I shed another skin.
I get closer to open air; true north.

Lord, if I say Bless the cold water you throw on my face,
does that make me a costume party. Am I greedy for comfort
if I ask you not to kill my friends; if I beg you to press
your heel against my throat—not enough to ruin me,
but just so—just so I can almost see your face—


Heavy by Mary Oliver

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely 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’s 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, 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?


Separation by W. S. Merwin

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Share your reflections on these poems about grief or any general reflections about poetry and loss in the comments below. We will be sharing more grief poems in the coming weeks.

Let’s be grief friends.

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14 Comments on "Poems About Grief and Grieving"

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  1. Trisha  March 25, 2021 at 10:11 pm Reply

    THIS IS MY FIRST TIME READING OR COMING TO TALK OR SHARE MY GRIEF OF MY FIRST BORN SON I LOST ON NOV 13 2019.

    1
  2. Gini  March 12, 2021 at 7:55 pm Reply

    Mary Oliver, the strong woman I know from Jamaica Plain hall where i first met you, having been broken over and over again, thank you for sharing your poetic words and heartfelt pain. Although time and years separate us, the love of truth will sustain us with comfort and hope.

  3. Geeta Devjani  March 2, 2021 at 3:17 pm Reply

    Thank you for these poems. I have found poetry to be the only way to express my grief as I continue life without my beloved daughter who died at the tender age of 5.

    The journey by Geeta Devjani, unfortunate mother of Anika, whose daily journey around the house feels like this:

    The journey from the bedroom to the bathroom
    Feels like I have to go on a minefield
    I have to gather all my courage
    And yet my feet touch a mine and I explode

    The journey from the bedroom to the living room
    Feels like I have to go to a battlefield
    I have to gather all my strength
    And yet I’m shot by memories and my mind is blown

    The journey from the bedroom to the kitchen
    Feels like I’m headed to the war zone
    I have to gather all my grit
    And yet the sight of many wounded soldiers makes me fearful

    The journey from the bedroom to the dining table
    Feels like I’m headed to the terror struck zone
    I have to gather my thoughts
    And yet the emptiness around me makes me terrified

    The journey from the bedroom to the backyard
    Feels like I’m headed to the ruins of war
    I have to gather all my determination
    And yet the sight of a dead garden makes me feel robbed.

    2
  4. Vicki  March 1, 2021 at 8:29 pm Reply

    “And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
    Aeschylus

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  5. Molly Brenchley  February 26, 2021 at 10:21 am Reply

    I am so sorry for your lose! Your words hit home, as I to, went thru the same. No one should have to watch their Daddy, their Hero, go thru such horrific pain, confusion, discomfort, etc. My Dad suffered for 10 years but always ed thru, seeing thing waste away, doing all we could for him has changed me. A month before his death, I lost my Fiance, the Love if my life, and a month before him, our dog, our baby, died. I am so lost. And so stuck. Thank you for sharing your poem. I love it!!

    1
  6. Aimee  February 25, 2021 at 9:14 am Reply

    Here’s one I wrote a few weeks after my husband passed. It’s been 5 weeks now.

    God’s perfect plan is a mystery to me
    It’s so much more than we can see

    It’s not what I would do at all
    I watch my plans, apart they fall

    My life is not what I thought it would be
    It would be quite different if it were up to me

    I wanted more time with the love of my life
    I wanted to continue being his wife

    I wanted to stay a family
    My husband, son, grandkids and me

    We did what we were supposed to do
    And we had a love that was so true

    We had dreams we never got to see
    And now I won’t, because there’s no ‘we’

    It doesn’t seem fair
    This burden I have to bare

    It wasn’t my idea of how it should end
    Our story seemed to only begin

    Sometimes when others are living happy
    It makes me so sad for what we can’t be

    When I look back at all the times in my life
    That I thought things hadn’t turned out right

    If I had been in charge it would have led
    To a much different life I would have said

    So when I remember the great times we had
    I realize that God’s plan was really not bad

    I could have ruined it all if I’d had my way
    And we never would have had our wedding day

    All the wonderful times that we shared
    Could have not been if my plans were spared

    I’m glad I’m not the one in charge
    God’s plan is perfect even when things are hard

    2
  7. Anne  February 23, 2021 at 9:46 pm Reply

    I can’t remember now if I’d read “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye before my husband died or not. But, I can tell you that I truly did not know sincere kindness until after my husband died. Unable to be of use to anyone at all and, yet, having all my needs met by family and friends – that was kindness on a level I’d never experienced before. And I will never forget it.

    3
  8. Justine  February 23, 2021 at 4:07 pm Reply

    I wrote this poem when on night shift with my dad last October. We cared for him at home until he died of cancer. I knew his time was close but I didn’t know that the night I wrote this was his last night with us.

    The cluttered house of childhood has changed it’s clutter.
    Half drunken cups of iced tea, juice & chocolate milk.
    How can it be that chocolate milk holds no joy these days?
    Empty cardboard boxes of medicines.
    Medicines half used, only to be discarded due to no relief.

    No relief for the one who needs them here
    But
    They can be given to those in other countries who don’t have the care we receive.
    Tissues & wipes & pills & straws & syringes & swabs & boxes & boxes & BOXES
    SO MANY BOXES

    A hospital bed too small
    Too small for a giant of a man who is shrinking before our eyes.
    Placed on an angle in the room that he enjoyed the most.
    Lying on an angle with feet on the base –
    Up
    Down
    Bend knees
    Cross them over
    Adjust
    Adjust
    Adjust
    Moan
    Moan
    Moan

    No more TV.
    It is too confusing, a distraction.
    It’s sounds dominate his dreams and distress him.

    Blankets on
    Blankets off
    Bed Up
    Bed Down
    Pillow Adjusted.

    Such uncomfort, such pain.
    Confusion
    Distress
    Moments of humour and a smile intersperse the sorrow

    “It’s OK Daddy. It’s OK” has become the new mantra.
    Only change being the noun to Pop when duties shift.

    The pain
    The pain
    THE PAIN!
    Just help us manage this pain!
    It’s not fair for him. It’s not right.

    Stronger medication today.
    Maybe this one buys relief.

    His namesake has arrived.
    She sits in the corner and plays in a box.
    She watches TV as her Mummy stands by the bed – at 1.5metres – gloved and masked – and speaks to her father.
    Just for one hour & it’s back to lock up.

    The Boy arrives. He only stays a bit but that’s enough.
    He talks of his day, of his songs and dances and adventures.
    When he leaves the conversation continues for hours – one sided.

    The school girl comes in her uniform, she drops her bag and goes over to the bed.
    She leans across and hugs and pats and wipes his face.
    She covers his legs
    Blankets on
    Blankets off

    Our Party Girl
    ‘Ok Poppa, it’s time for some medicine.
    It’s ok Pop.
    Love you.”
    She returns outside, to teach a dance lesson via zoom.

    Daddy’s girl
    In tears on the phone that she’s mixed up the medicines.
    It’s ok.
    It’s alright.
    The 24/7 number confirms.

    Mum sits at the foot of the bed.
    Head in hands
    Staring into the distance

    Helpless
    We all are.

    Daughter Duty
    Next to the bed.
    Hands held
    Direct eyesight to the red second hand of the clock on the wall.

    2am
    3am
    4am

    TICK
    TICK
    TICK

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  9. Bridget Joy  February 23, 2021 at 11:10 am Reply

    As a tribute to our beautiful 32 yr.old daughter who we lost to breast cancer Dec.2018 I recently compiled a book of prose/photos/ poetry.Instead of Memoriam Cards we distributed copies of my “Musings on Miriam” to so innumerably many who were with us on our grief journey.
    In light of our grief I so resonated with the insightful discernment and sheer heart- breaking perceptions in all three poems posted. I was heartened at your inclusion of “Kindness” by N.S.Nye as I had chosen it as a significant denouement to my own “Musings. ”
    I felt it encapsulated that message of challenge and encouragement I had wanted to convey , particularly to our daughter’s husband and two little sons going forward in life. .

    1
  10. Anne Beaumont  February 23, 2021 at 7:43 am Reply

    Beautiful poems. Here is another by Nick Cave called Snowman, which I share in memory of my beautiful grand daughter Abby who died aged 9
    In the dark
    I measure the space that you left to me
    by reaching my arms out to the sides.
    I hold them out in front
    I can feel countless memories
    that for like crystals around my fingers:
    a sparkling crust of love
    and I become the snowman
    that we built on the winter lawns.
    And I am you
    who in your absence has become ever present
    even though I will never stand before you
    and see your laughing face again.

    2
  11. Susan  February 23, 2021 at 12:07 am Reply

    Garden Song
    for Marjorie Russell

    By Chase Berggrun
     
     
    Some of what I know of love
    is her grin
    as I scrambled down the stairs
    and into the kitchen bearing
    an armful of sacred artifacts
    gathered from the mailbox
    at the far end of the long driveway:
    bulbs! Bulbs,
    mountains of them, mail-order seed packets
    embellished with the brightest colors.
    Miranda peeking out from behind a shelf
    to inspect the commotion
    as they spilled onto the dining table,
    Grandma already reaching
    for her gloves and shovel.
     
    I knew this house always as
    a place where care was given freely:
    a lent book on a lazy afternoon,
    a game of chess, the chairs and tables
    in the den pushed aside to accommodate
    the organization and display of
    our new-foraged collections,
    stones and fossils and polished bits of glass.
    The cat lapping at communal butter
    happy and unpunished. A shout to warn
    the ducks away from the neighbor’s
    morning bullet. Whole days
    of only easiness and calm.
     
    So many hours here spent simply tending life.
    Humming unconcerned through the beds
    alongside the bees I was convinced would do her in,
    as my eyes darted back and forth
    between her little bent frame inspecting seedlings
    and the drawer in the kitchen with the Epi-Pen.
    Fragments of old song absolutely foreign to me
    drifting out of a city of towering flowers,
    great bountiful tomato plants, a corner of tall corn.
     
    Each bulb covered with the soft earth,
    housed and hosed, made ready to meet the sun.
     
    Knees pressed in soil, smiling, raising her hand
    up toward tiny me, to help her stand. Her hand.

  12. Carmella L Russell  February 22, 2021 at 11:34 pm Reply

    “In philosophy and aesthetics, there is much discussion around the concept of the sublime. Schopenhauer suggested that people experience the full feeling of the sublime when faced by the overwhelming, turbulent power of nature. A power so great it can destroy you – an avalanche, a volcano. I have often thought that, in grief, when we observe art that captures the depths of loss, it taps into the sublime. A philosopher of aesthetics would rip me to shreds, but I stand by this. When one who has been destroyed by grief sees that captured in art, it is not abstract. It is not theoretical. It is facing the destruction that one has felt in their own loss.”

    Keep standing this! Your words spoke to me. “Art” in its many form helps me grieve. It can and often captures that depth of loss!

  13. George Nolta  February 22, 2021 at 11:08 pm Reply

    After my wife of 63 years died, I spent a lot of time contemplating my own mortality. I was impressed with how we much face our death in such a lonely way. I was inspired to write down these thoughts:

    OUR LONELY DEATH

    Death stalks me, like a sadistic cat – prowling the night.

    The timing is his, and the suspense is mine.

    I search through the days, trying to find a method to cope.

    Solutions elude me.

    I perceive the loneliness of the solitary passage.

    No comfort comes from friendly companions.

    A solo performance is required – no training in sight.

    We live in a busy crowd, but we exit like a lonely prisoner.

    I take this journey alone – totally unprepared.

    ( George Nolta – January 2017)

    • Molly Brenchley  February 26, 2021 at 10:19 am Reply

      Wow! I couldn’t have said it better myself. 63 years!! That’s so amazing, so beautiful. That is what I wanted so badly. A life with the one I love and cannot stop loving. Mu Fiance was taken from me too soon, this last September. We only had a year and a half together, and now I dont know what Im Supposed to do with my life, he was my life, my forever it God needed him more,I guess. I am so stuck in my grief, sitting at his grave, everyday. 163 days without him has been too many. Thank you for sharing. I hope you are doing ok.

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