Grief is a sacred journey

Poems to Soothe a Grieving Heart

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DSC06187Grieving allows us to heal, to remember with love rather than pain.
It is a sorting process.
One by one you let go of things that are gone
and you mourn for them.
One by one you take hold of the things that have become a part of
who you are and build again.
~Rachel Naomi Remen

Rachel Naomi Remen helped me turn toward grief instead of running from it. If your life hasn’t given you space to fully grieve, it’s not too late. Write a letter to the one you miss. Talk with a bereavement counselor or a trusted friend. Light a candle or offer flowers on a birthday or deathday. Eight years after my husband’s death, I still need Rachel Remen’s wise advice.

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The Well of Grief

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief

turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.

DSC00073 ~ David Whyte, Where Many Rivers Meet, 2007.

David Whyte follows grief down and in to the source of life and renewal. If we are willing to dive, we find treasures or coins in the dark, thrown by someone who, just like us, wished for a different outcome.

During the two years my husband Vic was sick, I was forced to surrender to what I did not want. Days after doctors said Vic would die within hours, he was still breathing. “Maybe he won’t die,” I said quietly to a friend who was with us. “No, Elaine. He is dying,” my friend said as he hugged me gently. Vic died forty-five minutes after our youngest son arrived at his bedside. Our son’s arrival in the dark room that night was a glistening jewel.

DSC07698I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.
~ Dawna Markova, from I Will Not Die an Unlived Life: Reclaiming Purpose and Passion

Ethereal wisps of joy, curiosity, and hope pulled me toward life. After absorbing the rawest grief, it was time to find new life. That meant taking risks. It mean a defiance toward grief, a will to live even if it hurt. I held my fear close like a wounded child and began searching. If I hadn’t cast seeds, many of which did not sprout, there would be no blossoms or fruits today. I had promised Vic I would find a way to have a good life on my own. I had promised myself.

birdfeederBird Wings

Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
up to where you’re bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you’d be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting
and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as bird wings.
~ Rumi

DSC01143The image of the opening and closing hand reminds me of a butterfly slowly beating its damp wings after emerging from the chrysalis. Rumi helped me feel the love within grief. He helped me feel the gratitude that arose when I softened my grip.

I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing.
And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps—
First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.
~ Robert Haas (“Faint Music,” in Sun Under Wood: New Poems (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1996), 41.)

DSC07828Vic loved these lines and so do I. Our personal pain becomes part of a universal human lament, a chanting, a deep Aum that vibrates with the universe.  And the sequence matters. First the ego’s suffering, then a recognition of our pain, and finally a celestial song.

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My blog Poems to Grieve By has been my most popular post for years. Today, I share five more poems that helped me along the way. I’d love to know about poems that helped you face grief or move forward in life. I also recommend an illustrated version of Rumi’s poem The Guest House by Gavin Aung Than who manages to be both respectful and hysterically funny. Have any of the characters in his drawings arrived at your guest house?

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24 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, This is such a beautiful poignant post! Thank you so much for sharing more soothing poems of hope and solace with us. Each and every line of your selected poems, opens the eyes of the heart. As a poet I’ve been greatly moved by many poems, yet today for some reason I’ve found myself reading Pablo Neruda’s ‘Tonight I Can Write (The Saddest Lines)’ over and over again. Language will fail me miserably if I try to describe how this poem affects me, so I’ll leave the poem below for others to delight in.

    See how your own lyrical words shine, and shimmer dear poet! For all through your articles, and wonderful book, you write with the mystic hand and heart of the poet. Oh my goddess! How my heart leaps in joy to discover the glistening jewels you leave upon many a page. Thank you dearly for scattering your beautiful seeds afar, I do believe they’ve sprouted in many a heart. I will leave Neruda’s poem here for others to delight in. Bright spring wishes, Deborah.

    Tonight I Can Write (The Saddest Lines) by Pablo Neruda

    Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

    Write, for example, ‘The night is starry and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.’

    The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

    Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
    I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

    Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
    I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

    She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
    How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

    Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
    To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

    To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
    And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

    What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
    The night is starry and she is not with me.

    This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
    My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

    My sight tries to find her as though to bring her closer.
    My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

    The same night whitening the same trees.
    We, of that time, are no longer the same.

    I no longer love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her.
    My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

    Another’s. She will be another’s. As she was before my kisses.
    Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

    I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.
    Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

    Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
    my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

    Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
    and these the last verses that I write for her.

    • Deborah, you make me blush. I’m also honored by your words, beautiful mystical poet of love that you are. There are so many poems I could have shared. I began with ten and whittled to make what felt like a narrative with the poems as skeletons. I also didn’t share anything long.

      I do not know this Neruda poem, although I know some others by him. My Hispanic friend reads Neruda to me in Spanish (which I don’t speak) and then in English. The words sing in Spanish. This exquisite poem makes me realize once again the huge world of poems and prose–so many I will never find. But you’ve brought this beauty to me today. I love how the mystery of love and mystery of time and memory are expressed. “I love her. I no longer love her. Sometimes I loved her. Maybe I love her. Love is so short, forgetting is so long.”

      Deborah, when we meet someday, I hope you will read me many poems. With love and gratitude, Elaine

  2. Your wisdoms and beautiful poetry are truly touching Elaine. Your life experiences and grief process has helped you become the teacher for those who seek enlightenment when they walk the path that you have. And some great enlightenment for all who will some day face those same challenges. You are a warrior. 🙂

    • Thank you, Debby. I’m glad to share what I’ve learned and what others have generously shared with me. Enlightenment is an ultimate goal after years of meditation, study, and sitting with spiritual teachers. I’m nowhere close to what that big word means, but I’ve learned something through living the lessons I’ve been given. Thank you for your kind words and for your work of turning life’s lessons into something valuable. I hope things will ease in your world soon.

  3. I will be emailing this post to two dear friends of mine Elaine who have suffered the deaths of their husbands, one by suicide and one after a long illness. I hope too that they read Deborah’s Pablo Neruda poem -Your selection is very beautiful and very very powerful thank you. As are your words, poetry too…

    • Thank you, Susan. I love the poems I wrote about in “Poems to Grieve By” (the link is at the bottom of the article) for the raw feelings of early grief, so these might be suitable, too. In both cases, I shared poems that most resonated with me and women in my bereavement groups.

  4. Poetry is the genre we reach for when we are in love and when we are in pain.

    I’ll never forget how often poems were used, for example, at the 9-11 memorial events.

    You also demonstrate that poetry continues to speak to the grieving soul, both in the raw immediacy of the loss and in the years to come.

    May you both find your own comfort and help others do the same, Elaine. You have found your calling.

    • It is, Shirley. My marriage began and ended with poetry. In 1966, Vic and I sat together on his couch while he read me poems from Walter Benton. On our last wedding anniversary about two weeks before he died, I read Vic love poems, including our favorite from Walter Benton which he had read to me 42 years earlier. I use poems in workshops, presentations, and bereavement groups. In book readings, the feelings are right when I include the poem “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, reprinted with her generous permission in my book. In early grief, I needed a reflection of my raw longing and confusion. More gentle poetry needed now. Thank you for your encouraging words, Shirley. I’m taking them in.

  5. Wonderful post, Elaine. The part about going into grief, instead of running away from it, spoke to me. I suddenly had a new insight. Coupled with grief comes fear of the pain grief entails — there are two major emotions at once.

    • Thank you, Ann Marie. That’s been an essential idea for me, Ann Marie. Trying to avoid pain has become natural for modern people who imagine a pain-free life, but our ancestors turned grief into a spiritual experience. Soon after Vic died I was so deeply immersed in sorrow that I feared I would never surface again. But I kept perspective and remembered the women in war zones or in natural disaster who lost their children, their husbands, their homes, their history, everything. I knew I was experiencing “ordinary” grief. When I stayed with my feelings and felt my longing, I also felt deep love and gratitude.

  6. Thank you for all the poems, Elaine. And I LOVE Rumi’s THE GUEST HOUSE. Also, your illustrations/photos are magnificent. What is it about “grief poetry” that makes it so beautiful? Do you think it’s the hope?

    • Big questions, Robin. Yes to hope. Maybe it’s also about placing grief in a “sacred” context where it traditionally resided. Not religious in terms of any one tradition (although some poems do that), but universal images that touch heart and soul where grief resides even if we don’t consider ourselves spiritual. I love “The Guest House,” too, and love these illustrations.

  7. Beautiful, Elaine. As you know, we share a love of poetry–and Mary Oliver in particular. I used the Guest House by Rumi in my book and still hold it as one of the most profound poems on grief every written–without being about grief:) Much love to you, Therese

    • Thank you, Therese. Yes, we share a love of poetry and much more. I’d forgotten you used “The Guest House” in ‘The Promise,’ but just re-read that chapter. Whew! That was a tumultuous testing time for you. I’m glad you found a way to heal. I’ve tried so many ways to help my body cope with Meniere’s Disease and deafness and to understand the esoteric meaning. Some have helped and many have not. In your case and in mine, we have to settle in for prolonged visits from difficult guests and do all we can to encourage healing. Much love back to you.

  8. Yes, wonderful post. I agree with you, and all the poets. David Whyte illustrates for us that we can breath deeply even when we feel breathless. That there is fruit to eat when your hunger is for something even deeper than food. Neruda– I read this poem and now want to run to kiss my wife. I think I’ll do that now.

    • Kissing your wife after reading Neruda is the best and wisest choice–and I’m laughing. Thanks for your other comments, too, Ira.

  9. My contribution from poet David Whyte whom I just now saw quoted: “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.” It doesn’t quite fit with the theme here, but it seemed to call to me. Perhaps you may feel the same.

    Your life with Vic enlarged you in ways that now enable you to live in a larger world. I see your influence expanding in wider and wider ripples.

    • It fits with the theme, Marian. Thank you. David Whyte expresses human truths in a language we all hear.

      Vic’s death tossed me into a new life and it was my job to make it work. My ripples are small, but it is nice to watch them move in various directions.

  10. Elaine, thanks so much for pointing me to this page, which I have visited 3 times and read fully each time. It’s a beautiful expression. I think the poem that has helped me in grief is this one following. A friend said that her grief was so big that nothing but the outdoors was big enough to contain it for a while…the night sky, the glorious day were her only real comforts…maybe that’s what drew me to this poem.

    From Blossoms

    From blossoms comes
    this brown paper bag of peaches
    we bought from the boy
    at the bend in the road where we turned toward
    signs painted Peaches.

    From laden boughs, from hands,
    from sweet fellowship in the bins,
    comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
    peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
    comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

    O, to take what we love inside,
    to carry within us an orchard, to eat
    not only the skin, but the shade,
    not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
    the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into

    the round jubilance of peach.

    There are days we live
    as if death were nowhere
    in the background; from joy
    to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
    from blossom to blossom to
    impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

    Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. BOA Editions Ltd., http://www.boaeditions.org.

    • How beautiful, Kim. Thank you for taking the time to read, comment, and share this poem. I love many of Li-Young Lee’s poems and heard him read in person once. You remind me to read more of his work. At least two of his books are on my shelf.

      Depending on what pieces you’ve read, you’ll know that being outside was the only thing that truly soothed my grief. I felt fortunate that my husband died in June because when I returned home the fields were purple-blue with thousands of flowering lupines. How could I deny life’s beauty? Then, as I took three or so walks a day with my dog, the summer unfolded with birds, butterflies, and constantly changing flowers. I watched them all burst forth and wither in Nature’s cycle of living and dying and knew I was experiencing what all living things experience. Everything that begins must end. Nature helped me know life was still glorious and I’d find a way to go on.

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