Poetry for mourners

12 Feb

I went to a party of millenials last weekend, which made me think of the last time I went to a party of people my age- a friend’s wedding.  Weddings make me think of funerals and vice-versa, as the only times in your life when everyone who loves you comes together to think of you.  I guess you can only enjoy one of them.  Anyway, this isn’t the people at the center of attention of these events, but about the attendees.

For the past eight years or so, whenever a close friend of mine loses someone dear to them, I send them some poems.  After my dad died in 2010 I joined a grief poetry group, and I saved a bunch of those poems as they were a comfort to me, and they continue to offer comfort, sometimes, to others.  So I thought I’d share them with you, in hopes that they comfort you or someone you love.

I’ll also stand on my soapbox here and say if someone you know is grieving, please send them a note or a text or a phone call. Use google and your heart and say anything.  Someone peripherally close to my husband lost her spouse a few years ago, and my husband waffled on whether to send an email, since he didn’t know the spouse.  I very passionately implored him to send something, and not expect a response.  It’s not about the person at the center of attention, it’s about the attendees and the mourners- acknowledge grief!  It sucks to feel like everything is going on without you and no one noticed the giant aching hole that appeared in the world when your person left it.  Look, I’m even giving you something to send!

I still feel so grateful and warm about the friends who appeared at my doorstep when my dad died and sat with me, and the ones who called or emailed or texted.  It’s an overstatement to say I never forgave the ones who didn’t acknowledge my grief, or hung out with me and forgot about it- that implies I still hold a grudge, but it’s more like my fondness and friendship has faded to indifference.  Because that’s how it feels when a friend doesn’t acknowledge a major life event- that they are indifferent to you.  Ouch.  Don’t be indifferent, be loving!  Send a poem or three!  The last of these is my favorite poem but doesn’t really belong on this list.

“Greatest hits”-these are great shortly after a death, but also anytime grief hits.

  • The Bustle in a House – Dickinson
    The bustle in a house
    The morning after death
    Is solemnest of industries
    Enacted upon earth, –

    The sweeping up the heart,
    And putting love away
    We shall not want to use again
    Until eternity.

     

  • PUSHING THROUGH

    It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
    in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
    I am such a long way in I see no way through,
    and no space: everything is close to my face,
    and everything close to my face is stone.
    I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief
    so this massive darkness makes me small.
    You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
    then your great transforming will happen to me,
    and my great grief cry will happen to you.
    Rainer Maria Rilke

“Anger”- personally, I was into these after a week or so and the shock had died down.  These poems are a bit angrier and darker than the others, and not everyone resonates with them.

  • Funeral Blues
    Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
    Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
    Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
    Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

    Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
    Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead.
    Put crepe bows round the white necks of public doves,
    Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

    He was my North, my South, my East and West.
    My working week and my Sunday rest,
    My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
    I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong.

    The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
    Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
    Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
    For nothing now can ever come to any good.

    – W. H. Auden

  • Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
    Do not go gentle into that good night
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
    Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
    Because their words had forked not lightning they
    Do not go gentle into that good night
    Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
    Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay ,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
    Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
    And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
    Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    And you my father, there on the sad height,
    Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
    Dylan Thomas
    1914-53

“Abstract”-this quiet poem talks about how everything must die someday.  I love it.

  • When a thing is placed
    A shadow of autumn
    Appears there.
    Kyoshi Takahama 

“Acceptance”-these two really resonate with people after a few weeks or months.  I still love them and it’s been years.

  • MY FATHER
    I think I am letting him go.
    It is not that my love is diminished
    or that I miss him less.
    It is only that the sun is up
    and there is no milk
    in the refrigerator
    and the bunny got out
    of the cage
    and is eating my red geraniums.
    I think I am letting him go.
    But sometimes at night
    before I go to sleep
    I feel the tears
    fill up my eyes
    and run down my cheeks.
    I do not think I will ever
    let him go.
    But he is gone.
  • Remember me when I am gone away,
    Gone far away into the silent land;
    When you can no more hold me by the hand,
    Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
    Remember me when no more day by day
    You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
    Only remember me; you understand
    It will be late to counsel then or pray.
    Yet if you should forget me for a while
    And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
    For if the darkness and corruption leave
    A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
    Better by far you should forget and smile
    Than that you should remember and be sad.

    – Christina Rossetti

“Love”- these are wonderful warm poems not directly about grief, but great when applied to grief.

  • Love-Czeslaw Milosz
    Love means to learn to look at yourself
    The way one looks at distant things
    For you are only one thing among many.
    And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
    Without knowing it, from various ills
    A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
    Then he wants to use himself and things
    So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
    It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
    Who serves best doesn’t always understand.
  • Love Does That-Meister Eckhart

    All day long a little burro labors,

    sometimes with heavy loads on her back and sometimes
    just with worries

    about things that bother only
    burros.

    And worries, as we know, can be more exhausting
    than physical labor.

    Once in a while a kind monk comes
    to her stable and brings

    a pear, but more
    than that,

    he looks into the burro’s eyes and touches her ears

    and for a few seconds the burro is free
    and even seems to laugh,

    because love does that.

    Love frees.

    Czeslaw Milos
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3 Responses to “Poetry for mourners”

  1. Penny Chattey February 12, 2018 at 11:47 am #

    This was read at my Mum’s funeral last year after she passed away from Dementia:
    Do Not Ask Me to Remember

    Do not ask me to remember,

    Don’t try to make me understand,

    Let me rest and know you’re with me,

    Kiss my cheek and hold my hand.

    I’m confused beyond your concept,

    I am sad and sick and lost.

    All I know is that I need you

    To be with me at all cost.

    Do not lose your patience with me,

    Do not scold or curse or cry.

    I can’t help the way I’m acting,

    Can’t be different though I try.

    Just remember that I need you,

    That the best of me is gone,

    Please don’t fail to stand beside me,

    Love me ’til my life is done.

    – Owen Darnell

    • yenergy February 13, 2018 at 3:35 pm #

      Thank you for sharing this, it’s beautiful. I’m sorry for your loss. There’s that novel *Still Alice *where the narrator has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and the end of the book is beautiful as she describes the people around her who love her, even if she doesn’t remember that they are her daughters.

  2. Evelyn February 13, 2018 at 1:54 pm #

    Thanks for this. In the past few years, my family and singing community have had some very sad losses. This Emily Dickinson poem, which I memorized in my 7th grade English class, keeps getting more and more meaningful. I keep thinking about the last conversation I had with my cousin, which was just some mundane thing that touched on movies and the new yoga studio he had started attending. It’s become a precious time in retrospect.

    DEATH sets a thing significant
    The eye had hurried by,
    Except a perished creature
    Entreat us tenderly

    To ponder little workmanships
    In crayon or in wool,
    With “This was last her fingers did,”
    Industrious until

    The thimble weighed too heavy,
    The stitches stopped themselves,
    And then ’t was put among the dust
    Upon the closet shelves.

    A book I have, a friend gave,
    Whose pencil, here and there,
    Had notched the place that pleased him,—
    At rest his fingers are.

    Now, when I read, I read not,
    For interrupting tears
    Obliterate the etchings
    Too costly for repairs.

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