Poetry and Loss
Shamus Heaney, the Irish Poet, said, “If you find the words there is always a chance you will find your way.”
This is what poetry does. It finds a way through the myriad challenges we are confronted with as human beings. Poems can be a life support when there is not enough psychic oxygen in our lives. Pain of loss comes in many forms: loss of a spouse, parent or child; a job; a standard of living; the ability to be able to do things for one’s self; loss of a country; self esteem; beauty; freedom; a beloved animal; faith; the ability to speak; collective suffering; and so on.
Poems are powerful remedies. We can go to our own Poetic Apothecary to find healing for the emotional pain we experience. I lost my husband six years ago, and not only did poetry help me navigate his illness and death, but also the grief that still is a presence. Poetry speaks directly to the rawness of suffering.
I wrote this poem as my husband was approaching his death at the end of January 2014. As you write a poem, it accompanies you to a place of truth and comfort that you may not have been able to access before. It is as if the poem takes off and speaks to you from a deeper part of yourself.
Breakfast from the Armchair
In your full-bodied life,
you never ate oatmeal
now its glutinous softness
cooling as your limbs
withdraw into fragile bones.
The wood fire lit,
you count the pills
with a rug over your knees,
your walking stick leaning by the chair.
Companioned by winter,
your illness with new demands.
We dip our spoons through the cream
together as if we were on a train
in the front carriage, and at some
desolate junction disconnected.
But this morning, still together,
in our warm compartment,
planning the slow morning,
from here to the daybed.
Your little dog curved into you
watching how the garden moves,
how the bamboo loves its life,
how one day it will shift in the
wind without you.
The kettle on,
I have no way to save you,
my king, my lover, my man.
During the time of his illness poetry kept me from depression and gave me courage to go on in the face of the inevitable. This poem by the Australian journalist Michael Launig allowed me to stay in the place of suffering for the length of time I needed to “let the wound lie open” and not try to cover up what I was feeling; to allow myself the time needed before entering back into life’s flow.
When the Heart
When the heart
Is cut or cracked or broken,
Do not clutch it;
Let the wound lie open.
Let the wind
From the good old sea blow in
To bathe the wound with salt,
And let it sting.
Let a stray dog lick it,
Let a bird lean in the hole and sing
A simple song like a tiny bell,
And let it ring.
Shortly after his death I wrote this poem requesting time to stay in the winter of my heart, unhitched and floating in a sad void.
Prolong the Winter
Do not rush the buds to open in the orchard.
Prevent the birds from filling the garden with song,
Keep the wheelbarrow locked in ice
among white tears of snow drops.
I want to walk on the frozen pond
with my heart groaning and creaking,
I want to stay under the blankets with the
sound of the wind from the north
in the wilderness of your leaving.
Spring has promise but the
promise I want to make is to the
rawness of life, that
like a river floods through and
makes the reeds lie flat,
the mud shift into deep valleys,
in its wake the heart broken open.
Let the cold and the tender light
work on every tissue until
with each miraculous breath
I walk again across greening fields.
As I draw near to the six year mark of Robin’s leaving, I realize that I am learning to be married to myself. This poem is partly humorous while addressing the difficulties of being alone.
You paid people off in those early years
and with relish announced
I was in the worst insurance bracket
for fenders I repeatedly offended.
We weathered thick and thin,
mostly you took care of both.
I apprenticed myself to the odd poem,
flourished in the ecology of your refuge
and you straddled continents.
I miss your amused calculations and
flounder among household necessities,
adding with my fingers, the abacus you loved
Imagining the miraculous arrival
of a man with a tool belt.
I am only just coping without your fettle.
I hardly dare tell you I have dented the car twice
since you left.
I know what it is like to be married to me now
not easy finding a light bulb
for a job I can’t reach anyway
Morning frost helps,
crystal patterns in the birdbath,
the moon’s devotion,
mist where you are
hiding among intelligent angels.
I miss your concern,
your debating lips, unrelenting inquiry,
And especially your heart as large as an elephant’s which even you, I suspect,
don’t know weighs sixty pounds!
Humor is an important remedy in the Poetic Apothecary, it brings perspective and levity even in dark times.
One of my favorite poems that addresses the wilderness of grief is W.H. Auden’s Poem “Funeral Blues.” So often people say “time heals” to those who are grieving, or they cross the street so as not to have to say anything. In Auden’s poems he refuses to budge from bitter despair. You cannot rush grief. It takes its own course while the ego shifts from foot to foot not knowing where it belongs.
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 the 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.
Auden’s sentiment is not always respected. People want you to recover to be your old self. Auden’s powerful poem gives the griever full permission to be angry, sad, and completely heartbroken.
How wonderful if there was, in every town square, hospital, prison, and school, a Poetic Apothecary.
Poet Judith Adams is currently presenting her free Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau talk, “The Poetic Apothecary: Poems for Healing and Comfort,” around the state. Find an event>