After a week-long death vigil, my sister died at her home in San Francisco; the next day I flew home to Milwaukee. When I look back now on that flight I realize I was the person other people pretend not to see on an airplane: uncontrolled tears periodically fell from my eyes. Exhausted, I kept tripping over my own feet and dropping things – boarding pass, water bottle, purse, carry-on. My hair was unkempt, my clothing not particularly clean. In other words I was a mess and looking at me made other people uncomfortable. On a plane full of people I was alone – but grateful for that aloneness after a week of ever-present people and the presence of death.

After take-off, I took out my journal with the intention of releasing my sorrow in prose, but instead this poem dropped onto the blank page before me:

Death comes
As a cloak of fireflies
A halo of wispy white ocean silk

Scrub jays and one crow gather
At dawn 
Then disperse

In the garden of hours
Insects whisper encouragement 
(June 2007)

Well - I did not know that was inside of me… I sat there waiting but no more than these few words seemed to want to come, words reflective of having witnessed the more mysterious and mystical aspects of my sister’s final hours. I had never seen anyone die before and was in wonder over how time had seemed to slow and stop, and awed at the love energies present as death drew near – and now here was that wonder and awe on paper. I eventually put away my journal and for the first time in weeks relaxed and let-go into a sound sleep. 

Later, when I shared Visitations with my poetry group, one member remarked, “I wish I had written this poem- without having to go through loss, of course. But that’s not how it works.” As a group we then discussed how poetry can be used to express loss, process grief and heal. Below is the essence of what we discussed that day, as well as additional thoughts from the perspective of my work as a grief support specialist.

Expressive Writing Can Help Process Loss

The concept of getting over the death of a loved one is prominent in our culture. But the reality is we do not get over but rather learn to live with what has been lost – this is the definition of both processing and healing in the context of grief. Processing requires action.  Writing poetry is an action that can provide a structure to help identify, express, place and hold painful feelings and experiences at every stage of the grief journey. 

Some Guidelines 

There is no right or wrong way to write poetry that expresses a loss experience. There are no rules. No set forms that need to be followed. However, there are guidelines that can make it easier to get started.

For inspiration, draw from what you know. Only you know the depth of your connection to your loved one and the depth of your feelings of loss. What would you like to say about that connection and loss? And in what way would you like to say it?

Some ways to structure or get into your poem might include:

  • Determine if there is a theme you would like to explore such as loss, longing, remembrance, regret or forgiveness
  • Determine if free-style writing or a particular form such as haiku, sonnet or elegy is the best way to communicate what you want to say (instructions for writing specific forms can be found on-line at  various poetry sites)
  • Note if there is an identifiable emotion present seeking expression or release such as confusion, longing, anger, sadness  
  • Write to your loved one telling them all the things you wish you had said in the past
  • Write to your loved one telling them what you are feeling and thinking right now 
  • Write a poem about your loved one conveying their uniqueness and importance to you
  • Write about a particular moment in time you shared with your loved one such as an activity, life event or conversation
  • Write about a particular moment in the present (such as a death date anniversary, birthday or holiday) when you felt your loss most acutely 
  • Write about the future and how you will carry your loved within you going forward

Life After was written on the one year anniversary of my sister’s death. The poem is an example of trying to capture a particular moment in the present by exploring my own sense of the continuing aliveness of my sister’s Spirit, as well as my observation that our mother was still at the beginning stages of grief. 

Life After
She travels still

Surfs cold waves
Off Santa Cruz
Clinging to the backs of brown sharks
Tangled seaweed and plankton

She travels still
Climbs Mount Whitney
Day after day after day
Unencumbered by gloves, boots or coat

She travels
Ascends with each Old Faithful inhalation
Ascends with every parachute jump
From every airplane

And she rests

She rests
In a small white cookie tin
Adorned with tiny
Red and yellow flowers
Dented and rusted by time
Before this time

She rests
Tucked between the folds
Of a white linen scarf
Woven by her mother
On an antique hand loom

Tucked into a tear-darkened space
Of California soil
Mourned by our mother who asks – still -
Is that all there is now? Is that all?

Putting Words on Paper

Whenever I teach healing writing classes, I begin every exercise with some sort of breath-work or guided visualization. This can be helpful in calming the body and mind, and putting aside fears about the writing process. Consider beginning your poem by closing your eyes. Then:       

  1. Breathe a little bit slower and deeper than usual to comfort, focusing on where the breath is most present in the body (such as nose, upper chest or belly).
  2. Once you feel relaxed or have a sense of inner comfort, continue to focus on your breathing and allow these three questions to arise in your mind: 
    What am I feeling?
    What am I seeing?
    What words or phrases am I hearing?
  3. As you continue to breathe, cue into any words, thoughts or images - including colors and shapes -that come forth. Notice any body sensations that arise. 
  4. Now, open your eyes and write by hand anything that arose to the surface without filtering your thoughts, revising words or taking notice of grammar, spelling or punctuation. 
  5. Next read what you have written, pulling out any strong images, themes, thoughts or emotions that seem to best express what you want to say; use these as the basis for your poem. 
  6. Write slowly to give yourself plenty of time to pull fragments together and think about what you are saying; all along the way, give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel – give yourself permission to cry.

Sharing Your Poetry

It can be helpful to read your poetry out loud to yourself as a way to further process the content of what you wrote. 

Sharing your poetry with others is optional. If it feels right, consider reading your poetry out loud to someone who has already been supportive of your grief journey, or at a memorial or commemorative service for your loved one.

Writing Poetry for Your Monthly Checkup

For the first six months to one year after the death of a loved one, writing poetry can be an effective way to do a monthly grief checkup. A monthly checkup can entail writing a poem on the first day of each month after the death of a loved one to discern:

  1. In what ways are you feeling better in the grieving process this month?
  2. In what ways are you feeling worse in the past month?
  3. And/or: how might you increase better feelings and decrease worse feeling in the month to come? 

As your grief heals you may choose to continue to write. Even years after the death of a loved one, the processing of loss continues, often seeking and finding a voice through poetry.

Through the Eyes of the Soul
you might say
that my sister is dead

and I might tell you
she is neither dead
nor my sister

anymore than you
are my sister
my brother
father   mother   friend

anymore than Christ Jesus
is dead

are we not all fleshless cells
of the same eternal body
where there is no
I   me   mine
no here no there or when
only now

the path brings freedom
from all earthly concerns

walking the path however
makes no such promises

*Originally published in Interruptio, Fabrizio Fabbri Editore, Perugia, Italy, 2010
All rights to original poetic works reserved by Elizabeth Lewis