Writing Poems Can Heal Grief
When grief overwhelms us, when someone whom we love more than life itself has died, we may feel that we have no words to describe the enormity of it, the excruciating pain we feel. But writing poems can heal.
At first, though, there may be only the racking sobs, or the quiet numbness. But often, the words are there. We just don’t know how to speak them in a way that someone else can understand what is in our hearts. Or: we know what we want to say but we don’t trust that others will hear it without judgement or fear.
After my first wife, Susan, died, I went to a weekly, drop-in grief support group for about a year. In that safe space I could say what I needed to say without worrying if other people would understand or criticize me. And nearly every week, I found my experiences and emotions mirrored in the words of others.
The Words are There
I also kept a journal and wrote poetry—in fact, I found myself compelled to write poetry. In the writing, I found another mirror.
There is something about writing poems that gets to the heart of what is in the heart. Poems distill feelings into words that can capture the essence of our experience. Poetry doesn’t require grammar or complete sentences. It doesn’t have to rhyme or use beautiful language. It only depends on telling the truth, to ourselves and for ourselves. I’m not talking about the sort of verse we often find in sympathy cards, promising peace. Poetry’s healing power is in giving voice to unspeakable loss.
Here is an excerpt from a poem by someone who was upset that no one took her grief seriously after her brother died. The words are simple, yet they speak volumes:
Someone died today.
My brother died today.
People do die, you know.
It wasn’t nothing.
It wasn’t a mere blip on the screen.
—from Someone Died Today, by Elizabeth Kuykendall
Compassion for Ourselves
When we write a poem that’s true, we can see ourselves with more compassion and understanding. Here is another poem excerpt from Voices of the Grieving Heart, from a woman whose baby died from SIDS:
If you hadn’t planned on staying, why’d you bother
with the living, and the leaving, in such haste?
There’s a woman in the grave who lies
and I’m the one who lives on in her place
—from Seven Candles, by Rose Drew
Poetry need not be painful if that isn’t what’s true for the writer at a given moment. Many of us have experienced moments of transcendence in the midst of our grief. Here’s one more excerpt:
Your soul is so spacious
that we pull it around ourselves
like a cloak of stars.
—from Cloak of Stars, by Cathleen Cohen
Writing Poems Can Heal You
Try this experiment: pick a line from one of the poems excerpted here—a line that moves you in some way. It might reflect something in your own experience of grief. It might elicit a memory of your loved one, or of an everyday experience now lost. Or you might just feel something in reading it, even if you can’t quite explain what that feeling is.
Write that line at the top of a sheet of paper; it will be the first line of your own poem. What do you feel when you read it? Are there sounds, smells, images, or memories that arise? Write those things down. Don’t worry if the language isn’t beautiful—you are writing for yourself.
Your poem might be the remembrance of an everyday experience now lost. It might describe the depths of your love or reveal thoughts or feelings that frighten you: unanswerable questions, even anger at your loved one, or a loss of faith in God. It’s all OK. Write it all down. We can’t heal if we are afraid to tend to our wounds. If you feel clumsy, remember that your writing will improve with practice.
Reading Poems Can Help Too
If writing just isn’t something you’re comfortable with, find poems by others who have written about their grief in a way that reflects your own experience. The right poem can be a mirror much like something we’ve written ourselves–sometimes even more so, if the author has captured something we have struggled to adequately express.
Read your poem aloud to yourself or even better, to someone whom you trust will hold your words with care. If you’re in a grief support group or seeing a counselor, I encourage you to share it there. It might seem a little awkward at first. But see if reading a poem aloud doesn’t evoke this response: “Yes, that’s it exactly.”
Check out Mike Bernhardt’s book, Voices of the Grieving Heart: https://mikebernhardt.net/order