The Power of Poetry to Face Dying, Death, and Grief

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As a writer, I look for as many opportunities as possible to communicate the variety of ways families can deal with death, dying, and grief. In addition to the plays I write to convey the challenging dynamics that families deal with when facing – or avoiding – these universal issues, I also appreciate poetry. 

While I am not a poet myself, I have learned that the beauty of poetry is its ability to bring what’s often a devastating series of events to the surface in a safe way, and, hopefully, in a satisfying way. 

April, National Poetry Month, is almost over, so it’s a perfect time to reflect on the power of poetry to help us reflect, guide how we feel and respond, and bring us comfort. The Academy of American Poets, founded in 1934, has used this month-long annual celebration to focus on the power of poetry every April for twenty-five years.

So how does poetry impact how we understand and deal with what it means to live and what it means to die.

Poetry Brings Comfort

Those of us who read (and write) poetry know from personal experience that poetry can evoke a wide range of calming and reflective emotions. Whether it’s the rhythm, the cadence or the images that the language of poetry can elicit, we know intuitively that we, as patients, caregivers, loved ones, and medical professionals can all benefit from the time we spend with poems. Poetry can not only bring our feelings to the surface, but can remind us that we are not alone:

Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own.”

Salvatore Quasimodo, Italian author (1901-1968)

Backed by Science

In addition to the positive feelings that poetry can elicit, the positive effects of poetry are also supported by what scientists are learning about the workings of the brain. Researchers at the University of Exeter used MRI technology to study which parts of the brain were affected by a variety of activities:

“In a specific comparison between poetry and prose, the team found evidence that poetry activates brain areas, such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, which have been linked to introspection,” says the University’s website.

Poetry is like music to the mind, scientists prove.

University of Exeter

Can reading poetry help us think more deeply to better examine our thoughts and feelings?

Long History of Connecting Through Poetry

Poetry as a means of connecting with others predates the written word. Ancient storytellers told their tales in verse, perhaps to make them easier to remember for themselves and for those who listened. Shakespeare, often called the greatest storyteller, wrote in iambic pentameter because of the effect it had and has on audiences:

“If you read this line, remember not
 That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.”

Sonnet 71, Shakespeare

John Donne, a contemporary of Shakespeare, challenged death’s power directly, asserting that it is more of a release than a penalty:

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, not yet canst thou kill me.”

Centuries later, poets continued the theme of the dying or dead not wanting their loved ones to mourn them: 

“Remember”

Remember me when I am gone away, 

Gone far away into the silent land; 

When you can no more hold me by the hand, 

Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay. 

Remember me when no more day by day 

You tell me of our future that you plann’d: 

Only remember me; you understand 

It will be late to counsel then or pray. 

Yet if you should forget me for a while 

And afterwards remember, do not grieve: 

For if the darkness and corruption leave 

A vestige of the thoughts that once I had, 

Better by far you should forget and smile 

Than that you should remember and be sad.

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

The same message continued into the twentieth century with poems like this one:

Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep

Do not stand at my grave and weep 
I am not there. I do not sleep. 
I am a thousand winds that blow. 
I am the diamond glints on snow. 
I am the sunlight on ripened grain. 
I am the gentle autumn rain. 
When you awaken in the morning’s hush 
I am the swift uplifting rush 
Of quiet birds in circled flight. 
I am the soft stars that shine at night. 
Do not stand at my grave and cry; 
I am not there. I did not die. 

Mary Elizabeth Frye (1905-2004)

Healing Through Discord

Poetry can also serve a role that’s more complex and more visceral than to be a comfort, though, in times of strife, such as when a death is imminent. What happens among loved ones after a family member is told he or she may not have long to live? We would like to think that a family bonds over the inevitable. We would like to think that past ingrained conflicts, slights or differing views fade away for the greater good. Sometimes they do. But sometimes the sorrow, the distress and the pain take over, leading to intensifying conflict at just the moment when unity would be most prized. 

That’s when a different kind of poetry can help. “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power, said twentieth century poet Paul Engle. “Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.”

Poetry can rip open a stream of emotions that one doesn’t want to face as a necessary step toward healing. 

Being Prepared

One of the key tenets of my work is to convey to families, caregivers and medical professionals how important it is for them to be prepared. How to accomplish this? By joining together to bring up end-of-life desires while there is still time for them to be discussed, pondered, decided and planned for.

As I pursue writing and sharing more poetry to reach out to even more families and medical professionals who are facing the prospect of a death, I once again turn to the poetry of Shakespeare:

”’Tis a vile thing to die, my gracious lord,

When men are unprepared and look not for it.” 

(Richard II: Act II, Scene II, Line 64)

Is there a poem that has served you during your own grief? If there is, I’d love to hear it.

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