Poems For Grieving

At my sister’s funeral in 1998, I tried to help my niece by giving her a book of poems related to grieving.  I don’t know if the poems helped her, but I found that several of them put words to my feelings and, thereby, were comforting.

Shakespeare advises me to express my grief.

Give sorrow words.

The grief that does not speak

Whispers the o’er fraught heart

And bids it break.

Shakespeare, Macbeth

Confucius lets me know that grieving may take a long time.

Let mourning stop when one’s grief is fully expressed


W. H. Auden expresses grief so eloquently that I can’t imagine any better. My world never actually stopped, but I put many thoughts and feelings on hold.

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 crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,

Let the traffic policeman wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East, and West,

My working week and 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 of any good.

W. H. Auden

Dylan Thomas advises me to rage against death as if it does any good.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

Lao Tzu tells me there is nothing I can do but die, a thought I don’t like.

To live till you die

Is to live long enough

Lao Tzu, Verse 33 of Tao Te Ching

Translated by Ursula LeGuin

This ancient Greek poem by Callimachus about his friend Heraclitus of Caria (a country now part of southwestern Turkey) reminds me of conversations with my long-passed friend Terry. Terry and I talked and talked – his voice still lingers in my memory.

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead.

They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.

I wept as I remembered how often you and I

Had tired the sun with talking and set him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,

A handful of grey washed, long, long ago at rest.

Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;

For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

Callimachus, from Ionicus

Translated by William Johnson Cory

Wandrers Nachtlied offers a compelling promise of rest. I encountered the poem in my first German class and liked it so much that I have kept a copy with me ever since, usually filed away but often posted by my desk. I am moved by the sentiment and the music of the German words. In addition, I enjoyed the challenge of translating the poem into English.

Wandrers Nachtlied

Über allen Gipfeln

Ist Ruh,

In allen Wipfeln

Spürest duIn allen Wipfeln

Kaum einen Hauch;

Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.

Warte nur, baldeDie Vögelein schweigen im Walde.

Ruhest du auch.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Wanderer’s Night Song

Over every hilltop,

it’s clear.

In every tree top,

One hears

Sounds so low.

The birds in woods are still.

Wait a while until

You rest also.

Translated by Peter Burke

In the last year of her life, my mother pointed out this parable to me in the book Zen Buddhism, The Peter Pauper Press, Copyright 1959. This is my favorite outlook on the inevitability of death – compelling, pragmatic, and austerely comforting.

A traveler, fleeing a tiger who was chasing him, ran till he came to the edge of a cliff. There he caught hold of a thick vine, and swung himself over the edge.

Above him the tiger snarled. Below him he heard another snarl, and behold, there was another tiger, peering up at him. The vine suspended him midway between two tigers.

Two mice, a white mouse and a black mouse, began to gnaw at the vine. He could see they were quickly eating it through. Then in front of him on the cliffside he saw a luscious bunch of grapes. Holding onto the vine with one hand, he reached and picked a grape with the other.

How delicious!

Seven friends, family members, work colleagues, and acquaintances have died in the past six months of 2011. Strange how events can clump together. One of those who died was Salvatore Emmi, a work colleague of mine. Sal had spent part of his life aspiring to become a monk, but I knew him as a research chemist. Sal delighted in exploring the unknown, including the uncertainties of life and death. He could bring faith to the doubtful and doubt to the faithful. He chose this poem for his funeral service.

Breathing Under Water

I built my house by the sea.

Not on the sands, mind you;

Not on the shifting sand.

And I built it of rock.

A strong house

by a strong sea.

And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.

Good neighbors.

Not that we spoke much.

We met in silences.

Respectful, keeping our distance,

but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.

Always, the fence of sand our barrier,

Always, the sand between.

And then one day,

– and I still don’t know how it happened-

the sea came.

Without warning.

Without welcome, even.

Not sudden and swift, but is shifting across the sand

Like wine,

less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.

Slow, but coming.

Slow, but flowing like an open wound.

And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning

And I thought of death.

And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it

Reached my door

And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death,

            Nor drowning.

That when the sea comes calling, you stop being

Good neighbors

Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors

And you give your house for a coral castle,

And you learn to breathe underwater.

Karel Bieleck, R. S. C. J.

Toward the end of Sal’s funeral service, at his request, this song was sung.

Somewhere over the rainbow

Way up high

There’s a land that I heard of

Once in a lullaby.

Somewhere over the rainbow

Skies are blue

And the dreams you dare to dream

Really do come true

Someday I’ll wish upon a star

And wake up where the clouds are far

Behind me

Where troubles melt like lemon drops

Away above the chimney tops

That’s where you’ll find me

Somewhere over the rainbow

Bluebirds fly

Birds fly over the rainbow

Why then, oh why can’t I?

If happy little bluebirds fly

Beyond the rainbow

Why, oh why can’t I?

            Yip Harburg

Sal loved mystery and chose to include it in his final wishes – breathing underwater, flying over the rainbow!  When I learned that RSCJ stands for Society of the Sacred Heart, I realized that Breathing Under Water is a poem of Catholic devotion. Can the same be said for Somewhere over the Rainbow?

Coincidentally in this same time frame, I discovered a new poem, rivaling and perhaps surpassing “Stop all the clocks” in expressing grief. Furthermore, it suggests a method for recovery, namely, writing.

When the world came down upon me

and the sky closed like a door,

sounds filled my ears from far away.

I lay down on the floor

And no one near could find me,

and nothing near was mine.

I sank into the floorboards

from the voices, soft and kind.

Until one thought got through to me,

one image filled my mind:

a pencil and a paper lying

close at hand, nearby.

Somehow I took them up and traced

one word and then the next,

until they linked together in a chain

that first perplexed the darkness

in my eyes, then,

rowing on my paper barque,

I soon was far away

and saw the water trail I’d left

rise up onto a chain —

a ladder reaching high above

to light and sound and friends.

And that’s how I climbed out

of the grief that has no end.

            Anesa Miller

            A Road Beyond Loss, 1995

That last line – “the grief that has no end” – gives me pause. Are the memories and emotions of grief with us forever?  If yes, then grief is not to be overcome but to be lived with. So, keep breathing, stay connected with nature, friends, and family, laugh, and write!

Walk around feeling like a leaf.

Know you could tumble any second.

Then decide what to do with your time.

Naomi Shehab Nye , The Art of Disappearing

Here is a popular funeral poem.

When I come to the end of the road

And the sun has set for me

I want no rites in a gloom-filled room.

Why cry for a soul set free?

Miss me a little–but not too long

And not with your head bowed low.

Remember the love that we once shared,

Miss me–but let me go.

For this is a journey that we all must take

And each must go alone.

It’s all a part of the Master’s plan,

A step on the road to home.

When you are lonely and sick of heart

Go to the friends we know

And bury your sorrows in doing good deeds.

Miss Me–But Let me Go

                                    Christina Georgina Rossetti