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Bereavement and poetry

Wed 11th Feb 2015

This is my first blog and in future I plan to write about different topics from time to time. For my initial blog I wanted to write about something, that at some time in our lives affects all of us – the very sad and difficult time when someone close to us dies.   I pose the question that at such a sad and distressing time can poetry help and be of comfort?

Until recently I had not read much poetry, probably since I was at school. Sometimes I might hear poetry read on the radio or flick through a poetry book whilst in a book shop and occasionally I might take an old poetry book off my book shelves. More recently I’ve come to learn and appreciate just how much poetry can be of great help and comfort to some people when they are at their lowest.

This is often the case when someone close to us has died. Many of us look to poetry when arranging a funeral service. Often the beautiful and heartfelt words of others can be inspiring and help us at a time of great sadness to put into words our own feelings.

One of my favourites is the well-known Christina Rossetti poem, Remember, where she seems to be saying remember that the person, who we have lost, does not want us to be sad, but to remember them and be happy. When we are desperate and low after we have lost someone we love, this sentiment can often seem impossible; but some people can and do take solace from the meaning of this poem.

Remember

Remember me when I am gone away, 
Gone far away into the silent land; 
When you can go 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 planned:
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 - 1862

A particular piece that I have turned to myself when low is A Time for Everything which comes from Ecclesiastes in the bible, but you don’t have to be religious to appreciate this beautiful piece of writing. Here is an excerpt.

Book of Ecclesiastes - A Time For Everything

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboreth?

The Bible, King James Version

In the 1960s the America folk singer Pete Seeger used these words in a song he wrote; Turn, Turn, Turn. Here is one of my favourite versions sung by Judy Collins, which I find beautiful and really moving.

Here are two more poems that I particularly like. This one All Is Well by Henry Scott Holland, was written in 1910 and is often read at funerals. He was a priest at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and it is believed that he never intended it as a poem; it was actually delivered as part of a sermon in 1910 entitled, "Death the King of Terrors" and was read while the body of King Edward VII was lying in state at Westminster.

All Is Well

Death is nothing at all,
I have only slipped away into the next room,
I am I, and you are you,
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still,
Call me by my old familiar name,
Speak to me in the same easy way which you always did,
Put no difference into your tone;
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect, without the shadow of a ghost on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was; there is absolutely unbroken continuity,
why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am just waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner.
All is well.

Henry Scott Holland - 1910

And lastly Remember Me is poem written in 1981 by David Harkins, a former baker from Cumbria, which is both comforting and helpful.

Remember Me

Do not shed tears when I have gone but smile instead because I have lived. 

Do not shut your eyes and pray to God that I'll come back but open your eyes and see all that I have left behind. 

I know your heart will be empty because you cannot see me but still I want you to be full of the love we shared. 

You can turn your back on tomorrow and live only for yesterday or you can be happy for tomorrow because of what happened between us yesterday. 

You can remember me and grieve that I have gone or you can cherish my memory and let it live on. 

You can cry and lose yourself, become distraught and turn your back on the world or you can do what I want - smile, wipe away the tears, learn to love again and go on.

David Harkins - 1981

There has been so much lovely poetry written over the centuries about death and losing people we have loved, and I hope when you are going through the grieving period and when you feel at your lowest, missing a loved one terribly, turning to poetry can be like turning to a friend who understands you in your darkest moments.