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December 10, 2018 Beyond The Dash

The Top 4 Poems for the Recently Bereaved

Death in poetry

The Top 4 Poems for the Recently Bereaved
There are many poems that explore themes of death and bereavement, but these four really get grief right. (Shutterstock)

Finding comfort in the words of the wise is a great strategy for coping with grief. Here are 4 poems that can give you a fresh perspective on a recent loss.

1. "Nothing Gold Can Stay" by Robert Frost

Nature's first green is gold, 

Her hardest hue to hold. 

Her early leaf's a flower; 

But only so an hour. 

Then leaf subsides to leaf. 

So Eden sank to grief, 

So dawn goes down to day. 

Nothing gold can stay.

Frost's well known 1923 poem is oft-taught in school classrooms, because it is heavily referenced in the coming of age novel, S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. Because of this novel's inclusion in English curriculums across the United States, most people are familiar with this poem. 

It's valuable to revisit these lines when questioning the value of life, knowing that it must always end in death. Life is fragile, fleeting and impermanent, but it is still beautiful. "Nothing gold can stay," but life is still invaluable. The fact that it can slip away so easily makes it rare, and precious.

2. "Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep" by Mary Elizabeth Frye

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 sun 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.

This poem tackles the sorrow of grief directly, urging his survivors not to weep for him when he is gone. The speaker shares his spiritual beliefs, saying that the dead become part of the earth. "Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep" rejects sorrow in bereavement, instead comparing the dispersal of soul to earth's greatest natural phenomena. 

We're shown a unique narrator who is deeply at peace with his own inevitable demise. This perspective can be helpful for those left to mourn—it's soothing to know that the deceased person wasn't anxious about passing away. Sharing an optimistic message about death for bereaved survivors is a beautiful way to show the living that they are allowed to grieve, but they are also allowed to move on.

Though we don't normally recommend suppressing the pain of bereavement, Frye's poem reminds us that death is a natural end of all organic creatures on earth, including humans. The loss of a loved one is a sad, somber occasion, but there's comfort in knowing that death continues to contribute to the beauty of life.

3. "The Little White Hearse" by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Somebody's baby was buried to-day--

The empty white hearse from the grave rumbled back,

And the morning somehow seemed less smiling and gay

As I paused on the walk while it crossed on its way,

And a shadow seemed drawn o'er the sun's golden track.


Somebody's baby was laid out to rest,

White as a snowdrop, and fair to behold,

And the soft little hands were crossed over the breast,

And those hands and the lips and the eyelids were pressed

With kisses as hot as the eyelids were cold.


Somebody saw it go out of her sight,

Under the coffin lid--out through the door;

Somebody finds only darkness and blight

All through the glory of summer-sun light;

Somebody's baby will waken no more.


Somebody's sorrow is making me weep:

I know not her name, but I echo her cry,

For the dearly bought baby she longed so to keep,

The baby that rode to its long-lasting sleep

In the little white hearse that went rumbling by.


I know not her name, but her sorrow I know;

While I paused on the crossing I lived it once more,

And back to my heart surged that river of woe

That but in the breast of a mother can flow;

For the little white hearse has been, too, at my door.

"The Little White Hearse" is a heartbreaking poem about the nature of grief. Though many people move on from bereavement toward a state of acceptance, their grief remains a part of them. When subsequent deaths occur, many people re-experience their own past loss, even if it's years later. The speaker in Wilcox's poem sees a funeral procession for a baby, and returns to her own grief.

She feels empathy for the mother of the recently deceased child: "That but in the breast of a mother can flow." Her past loss allows her to deeply relate to the newly bereaved mother, even though she does not know the woman who shares the same type of loss. Seeing the hearse dampens her mood: "And the morning somehow seemed less smiling and gay" and she briefly revisits her own journey through loss.

Death touches the lives of us all. When someone we loved deeply passes away, it's a life-altering event. Grief visits again and again, but becomes manageable over time.  

4. "Funeral Blues" by Wystan Hugh Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.


Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling in the sky the message He is Dead,

Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,

Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.


He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.


The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Quite the opposite of the speaker in "Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep," this speaker can't accept the loss of a loved one. In this poem, the speaker wants the world to end, now that his beloved is gone. 

When someone you love dies, it's impossible to comprehend all the happy people still living their lives, untouched by the pain of grief. The world does not end, even though it feels like it should. Wystan Hugh Auden's "Funeral Blues" perfectly captures the bitter resentment that so many grieving folks experience when they encounter everyday joy. 

But it's important to remember that while this reaction to a death is completely natural, it too will fade as you move through the process of mourning. Take comfort in knowing that the world will not end when a loved one passes away. In the future, this fact might become your most comforting thought.

The path forward

Reading poetry that explores themes of loss and bereavement is a practical way to put words to your own grief emotions. Naming painfully nuanced feelings in grief is the first step to overcoming grief in a way that is healthy and manageable for you. These poems and others like them can provide an escape, as well as some perspective, at this time. 

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