When my second daughter was seven years old, we lost her at the mall. We soon found her, and all was well — but I will never forget how I felt the moment I realized we'd lost her. It was as though time stood still. First, my heart started pounding. Then my body went really, really cold, and then really hot. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t think. After what seemed like a long time, I breathed and I moved, and then we found her.
Evolutionary biologists suggest that grief is a side effect of having relationships, not because it provides benefit in itself. Our families, loved ones, and friends help us navigate the world, and help us survive. And, when we are separated, our bodies send out alarm cries to bring us back together. But after death, the two cannot be rejoined.
People try to cope with and manage grief in many different ways. Grief is intensely personal, and no two people meet grief in the same way. Grief has been written about over time, in all its various forms in poems, grief songs and in books. Often, reading about someone else’s experience of grief helps the griever feel connected and empathised with.
Here are 11 poems, quotes, and books that delve into the many facets of grief, grieving and loss, and try to help us find our way back.
1. Do not Stand at My Grave and Weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye
This popular poem has been paraphrased many times on television and in the movies. The poem encourages us to look beyond the grave for our loved ones. We are told to look for our loved ones in the wind and snow, in “the gentle autumn rain.” Frye suggests that death is not the end but the beginning: “I am not there. I did not die.”
2. On Death by Khalil Gibran
The last two verses of the poem are the most well-known: “For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered? Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”
On Death offers an optimistic, hopeful view of death as part of the natural cycle of life culminating in the freedom to return to God.
3. Epitaph – the Poem by Merrit Malloy
This poem speaks of remembering a lost loved one by loving others, and by seeing love in others. The poem tells the grieved to look for their loved one in the people around them and to continue to give love. It tells of leaving love as a legacy: “I want to leave you something, something better than words or sounds.”
4. The reality is that you will grieve forever by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
Better known for her story On Grief and Grieving, Kubler-Ross in this book describes the five stages of grief and her own experience of grieving after the death of her husband. Often, people will try to comfort the grieved by offering the platitude, “It will get easier with time.” Kubler-Ross disputes this in her book, stating that one never fully gets over grief but rather learns to live with it. She notes that we will never be the same, “nor would you want to.”
5. 3 stages of Grief by Bridgid Patrick
Bridgid Patrick suggests in this poem three stages of grieving. The first is The Torment, which is the initial stage of shock and horror of losing a loved one. This is described as feeling like drowning in icy water, and being “swallowed by sorrow”. This is followed by The Healing, where the water ebbs away to allow the griever to begin the process of healing. The final stage is The Future, where hope glimmers as the pain of the loss begins to dim in the light of a “brand new day”.
6. Facing Death by Ram Dass
Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert, was a Harvard professor in the 60s and 70s who was renamed after a spiritual encounter in India. Ram Dass went on to author several books discussing spirituality and mindfulness long before either was in vogue. He is credited as a key figure in bringing Eastern spirituality to the West, and his seminal work, Be Here Now addressed death and the concepts of death and grief. In Facing Death, Dass suggests that when someone we love dies, we are “trapped in our pain — until we look beyond the form.” He maintains that we must allow our grief to be “transformed into a living love space” to help us move beyond the pain.
7. Afterglow by Helen Lowrie Marshall
This poem gives us the potential perspective of someone who has passed away. How would you like to be remembered? How would you like others to think of you after you have died? In this poem, Lowrie Marshall suggests that the person who has passed wants us to remember them in happier times, with a smile, rather than with tears and grief.
8. Funeral Blues by WH Auden
Auden is a well-known and often quoted poet, and this poem was famously used in the 1994 movie Four Weddings and a Funeral when one of the main characters died suddenly. The poem speaks of the despair and shock of grief — of wanting time to stop, and the world to stop, to reflect the enormity of the loss. The loss us so sudden and so recent that it feels that “nothing now can ever come to any good.”
9. He is Gone by David Harkins
This poem is reminiscent of Afterglow. Harkins suggests that we have a choice in how we remember our lost loved ones: we can “shed tears that he is gone or smile because he has lived.” The poem presents the idea that we all leave a legacy and we can all leave the world a better place for having lived.
10. Miss Me but Let Me Go by Unknown
This is another grief poem that encourages us to remember our lost loved ones positively. This poem acknowledges that we will miss our loved ones but we must let them go and return to God. The poem suggests that life and death is “all part of the Master’s plan” and simply another “step on the road to home.”
11. Grief by Ashraful Musaddeq
This work makes a somber end to our list of poems of grief. Unlike many of the other poets we've mentioned, Musaddeq paints death and grief as dark, black and numbing. “Grief cuts the heart with a silent scissor,” he writes, suggesting that grief is sharp, cutting, and makes us bleed in sorrow. He questions whether grief ever ends or is as permanent as death for “one and all, for living and non-livings.”