Loss & Healing




Poetry is a powerful source of comfort and inspiration when facing the expected loss of a loved one or in recovering from loss. It can illuminate the nature of death and dying, provide an uplifting emotional outlet, and enrich understanding through texture and detail that reveals life as unique, lyrical in some aspects, and full of lasting value despite its transitory nature. It infuses life and loss with meaning beyond ordinary perception.

Tinkers and The Year of Magical Thinking are two full-length books that deal exquisitely with the nature of losing and healing. Breathless, a booklet of poems by a registered nurse, honors her terminally ill patients. The compilation by Kevin Young of poetry about grief and losing is a remarkable gift to people suffering loss. "Piercing" reflects the efforts of a 12-year old girl to deal with the loss of her beloved grandmother. “Do you hear it?” by Tom Togashi is from the diary he kept during his last year of life, gracefully and graciously accepting terminal illness at the age of 60.




TINKERS, Paul Harding, 191 pages, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2010, Bellevue Literacy Press, http://www.tinkerspulitzer.com. Also see other titles by Bellevue Literary Press. http://blpbooks.org

“Lightning crawled down the mountain and drank at the water, lapped the shallows with electric tongues, stunning bolt-eyed frogs and small trout and silver minnows….”

“…Light changes, our eyes blink and see the world from the slightest difference of perspective and our place in it has changed infinitely….”

“His despair came from the fact that his wife saw him as a fool, as a useless tinker, a copier of bad verse from two-penny religious magazines, an epileptic, and could find no reason to turn her head and see him as something better.”


THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, 227 pp, Joan Didion, National Book Award, 2005. Within a very short period, Joan Didion lost both her daughter and her husband, one to a prolonged illness and the other, her life partner for 40 years, in a sudden moment. She wrote The Year of Magical Thinking to “make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I have ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself." http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/09/books/review/09pinsky.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1305396106-SJmm0786oaw5400/W9prlA

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us knows until we reach it….We do not expect this shock [of loss] to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind….We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be…a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead…the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”




BREATHLESS, 25 pp, Jeanne Bryner, 1995, Number 7 in the Wick Poetry Chapbook Series, Kent State University Press.

This little booklet of 18 poems brings the poetic perspective of Jeanne Bryner, a registered nurse at a hospital in Ohio, to her experiences with her terminally-ill patients. It is an extraordinary effort by a deeply compassionate healthcare professional to celebrate and recognize her patients by putting their words and feelings into a poetic form that also reflects her own feelings. http://www.kentstateuniversitypress.com/category/series/chapbook



When we wrestle soft old people
into their beds, clawing and shriveled,
I can’t help thinking freedom is instinct
and falling is no worse
than flying without wings.

In wheelchairs, they become reels
of silent movies, gray and terribly sad
dressed in flapping arms
and pale blue gowns.

Hasn’t the sky already tumbled?
Their ribs are paper kites
lonely for sunset
and lunging in short bursts
from their chests.

What can I do but catch this string,
fasten it to our steel, keep them
from blowing into thickets
or over the edge of boulders?

I find it impossible not to imagine
them before—pink and round and barefoot—
racing each other in cool spring air,
where, suddenly, their cries become warblers
who can’t stop calling for help
before the cat creeps back
grinning, waving his midnight tail.


THE ART OF LOSING: POEMS OF GRIEF & HEALING, 336 pages, edited by Kevin Young, Bloomsbury Publishing, March 2010.

This remarkable collection of poetry was compiled by poet Kevin Young as a way to deal with his sense of loss on the death of his father. The book has quickly become an inspiration to many others. He wrote about the book that "the best poems are precise about a feeling…[able to be] direct and…full out, but also make music out of it” and metaphor and meaning. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126282089


I Am in Need of Music

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips.
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead.
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

Here is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

[Elizabeth Bishop]



Memory of W. B. Yeats

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

[W. H. Auden]


Redemption Song

Finally fall.
At last the mist,
heat’s haze, we woke
these past weeks with

has lifted. We find
ourselves chill, a briskness
we hug ourselves in.
Frost graying the ground.

Grief might be easy
if there wasn’t still
such beauty—would be far
simpler if the silver

maple didn’t thrust
it’s leaves into flame,
trusting that spring
will find it again.

All this might be easier if
there wasn’t a song
still lilfting us above it,
if wind didn’t trouble

my mind like water.
I half expect to see you
fill the autumn air
Like breath—

At night I sleep
on clenched fists.
days I’m like the child
who on the playground

falls, crying
not so much from pain
as surprise.
I’m tired of tide

taking you away,
then back again—
what’s worse, the forgetting
or the thing

you can’t forget.
Neither yet—
last summer’s
choir of crickets

grown quiet.

[Kevin Young]

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(on the loss of her grandmother)



Every day I see you
You become more distant
I can feel your large hands slipping away from my small ones

Your sweet smiling face
Is beginning to blur
Certain sections have disappeared completely

I can hear your screams
Your cries from your pain
And all I can do is cry along with you

You've become a part of me
Of my heart and soul
I can't live without you, I can't let you go

But soon I'll have to accept
That you're going to go
Slip away from my fingers and fall

Know that you'll always be mine
You'll be close to my heart
We're best friends and I'll never forget you

You'll never be gone
I will keep you alive
'Cause I can't live with this feeling inside me

It's growing larger and larger
As you grow smaller and smaller
It's tearing me apart piece by piece

Even though you're leaving
Leaving me all alone
I have to forgive you, there's no way I won't

Know that you'll always be mine
Encased in my heart
And that I'll never forget you


[Izzy Hanson-Johnston, 12 years old, 2011]

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(during his last year of life)


Do you hear it?

I never dreamt I would be able to lead such a great life.
Let me turn every day into a year.
Within eternity, one lifetime is merely a single moment
Within a single moment.
It is not a question of how long one might live.
It is about how to live every single moment
With all one’s might. Without regret.
While loving the people one loves.

What should I do from now on?
The only thing to do is walk towards the sun.

Do you hear it, the music of courage?
Do you hear it, the song that encourages you to live and do your best?
Do you hear it, the beat of your living heart?
Do you hear it, the quiet sounds from the cosmos?
Do you hear it, the voice of somebody whispering, a kind voice?

Do you hear it, the sound of the waves of love
That wash upon the shore many thousand times?
Do you hear it, the sound of your important life?
Do you hear it, the time when you were still in your mother’s womb,
Having a conversation just the two of you,
Promising each other to live happily?
Do you hear it, the voice of your mother saying
“Live as much as you can!”

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Caring for An Elderly Parent at Home, by Marye Audet, is a sensitive and inspiring account of her experience in caring for her mother at home during the last several months of her life. The author offers guidance to make parental (or any other) end-of-life care at home easier for both the caregiver and the terminal patient. http://maryeaudet.hubpages.com/hub/Aging-Parents

The Unspoken Diagnosis: Old Age, by Paula Span, speaks about the question of when physicians should speak candidly with their patients and their families when terminal illness is near. Dr. Smith is a palliative care specialist in practice at the V.A. Medical Center in San Francisco. See The New Old Age article in the Dec. 29, 2011 issue of the New York Times http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/29/the-unspoken-diagnosis-old-age/


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