4 Insightful Ways Poetry Can Help Readers Cope With Death
Trigger warning: This article extensively discusses death, grief, and loss.
In Dickinson, a reimagining of Emily Dickinson’s life currently streaming on Apple TV, viewers see the young poet having intimate, unusual conversations with death. In this interpretation, “Death,” portrayed by Wiz Khalifa, is personified as a physical being. The audience watches Dickinson rush towards his carriage in excitement, donning a ballgown and eager to unravel his mysteries.
Of course, the choice to make Death a character stems from the theme’s prevalence in Dickinson’s poetry. However, as a recent viewer both surprised and moved by the artistic decision, to me it revealed how poetry can bring us into conversation with death, loss, and grief, empowering us to approach these devastating topics in new and highly personal ways. Generally, talking about death can be difficult, or can even feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in our society. Poetry pushes past this, providing freedom to wholly feel and process a wide range of emotions. These four cathartic techniques may serve as important steps.
Write an elegy
The elegy, described as a form that expresses sadness or loss, dates back to ancient Greece. Classic poets from Shakespeare to Whitman have penned these laments, and there are hundreds of elegies in the Poetry Foundation database. Take this long-spanning tradition as a sign that you are not alone in the experience of death and grief. Writing an elegy can mark a method of reflection. Next, if you feel comfortable, sharing the elegy can bring everyone impacted by the loss closer together and open a vulnerable, healing dialogue. For inspiration, consider “Moonflowers” by Karma Larsen, which takes the metaphor of a late friend’s gardening to assert a hopeful and consoling message:
“Midsummer [flowers] shot up, filled the small place by the back door, / sprawled over sidewalks, refused to be ignored. / Gaudy and awkward by day, / by night they were huge, soft, luminous. / Only this year, this year of her death / did they break free of their huge, prickly husks / and brighten the darkness she left.”
Write an obituary or a series of obituaries
Despite the elegy’s popularity, poet Victoria Chang consciously rejected the form when writing the collection Obit, a series of poems that grappled with her mother’s illness and death. Instead, Chang opted for obituary poems—long, skinny, and often prosaic. Chang commented on this decision, noting, “I felt an urge to write some of these obits because I felt everything around me had died.” While some of the obits focus specifically on honoring Chang’s mother, others explore grief through strange and creative lenses: the death of the dress Chang’s mother was buried in, the death of the cup where Chang’s mother kept her dentures, and more. In writing about these uncanny and less literal deaths, Chang’s work upholds a crucial point: Death is inherently surreal, and those struggling don’t have to make sense of it. Moreover, Chang’s titular poem, “OBIT,” powerfully acknowledges that grief isn’t linear:
“I used to think that a dead person’s words die with them. Now I know that they scatter, looking for meaning to attach to like a scent. My mother used to collect orange blossoms in a small shallow bowl. I pass the tree each spring. I always knew that grief was something I could smell. But I didn’t know that it’s not actually a noun but a verb. That it moves.”
Remember your loved one through rereading a poem
Do you have a favorite poem you shared with your loved one, or a poem that makes you think of them? Taking time to reread it regularly and to smile at the memories it evokes can prove valuable.
Let poetry guide you through the grieving journey
When award-winning poet Hadara Bar-Nadav experienced the loss of her father, she struggled to find enjoyment in most aspects of life—including writing. At first, writer’s block overtook Bar-Nadav completely, but she soon found a way to persevere. Bar-Nadav took lines by her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, and incorporated them into her own poetry whenever she felt like she couldn’t keep writing. In an interview with Jet Fuel Review, Bar-Nadav explained, “Once I started to write a few of the Dickinson-inspired prose poems, I discovered I had a form to lean on, and this helped me as I navigated the writing of these often difficult elegies . . . She taught me that I could write through grief, by example. I borrowed phrases from Dickinson’s poems for my titles and then imbedded a phrase from her poetry within each of my own poems. This method of collaboration not only helped me find a way to begin writing these elegiac poems, but helped me to continue.”
It’s an understatement that writing through grief is difficult. Understand that the process might be different than your usual writing routine—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Bar-Nadav’s resulting manuscript, Lullaby (With Exit Sign) won the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. In addition, poems in the manuscript oscillate wildly, taking the reader through many stages of grief. Don’t hesitate to capture the experience’s unpredictability.
Above all, be gentle with yourself. Remember that poetry is just one of many resources, and that you should reach out to your support system or a counselor when necessary. If you need more poems for the grieving process, discover comfort and empathy in these 10 poems for grief.