Poetry for when you're grieving


Poems chosen by Tilly Munro and taken from “All in the end is harvest: An anthology for those who grieve” ed. Agnes Whitaker (DLT/Cruse 1984)

This anthology is out of print.  It is, however, readily available from second-hand booksellers online.  You might find it a helpful book to have in a bedside table drawer: it is a book to return to, and dip in and out of.  

This poem might be appropriate when a death was sudden and unexpected, and perhaps farewells were left unsaid.

In Loving Memory: E.M.Butler by Cecil Day-Lewis
‘Goodbye’ - the number of times each day one says it!
But the goodbyes that matter we seldom say
Being elsewhere - preoccupied, on a visit,
Somehow off guard - when the dear friend slips away.

Tactfully, for ever. And had we known him
So near departure, would we have shut our eyes
To the leaving look in his? Tried to detain him
On the doorstep with bouquets of goodbyes.

I think of one, so constant a life-enhancer
That I can hardly yet imagine her dead;
Who seems, in her Irish courtesy, to answer
Even now the farewell I left unsaid.

Remembering her threefold self - a scholar,
A white witch, a small girl, fused into one -
Though all the love they lit will never recall her,
I warm my heart still at her cordial sun.

The following lines taken from a hymn reflect that sometimes, in grief, one can only focus on the very near future.

Lines taken from hymn ‘Lead, Kindly light’
Keep though my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene: one step enough for me.

Sometimes, sorrow feels fathomless.

The Depths of Sorrow, from Penguin Book of Oral Poetry.
It is a free translation of an elegy from central India.

The depths of sorrow in tears have not been measured
The mountains and the hills will pass away
Like flooded rivers and streams, tears may flow
But what your destiny has given you must accept.
Brother, were I a teardrop I would fall like flooded waters
For the deep limits of sorrow’s tears are not yet found.


This poem touches on how disjointed the world can seem after someone has died. How were we planning holidays? The patterns of ‘normal’ life are changed, and won’t be the same again.

Death makes philosophers of us all by Susan Wallbank
death makes philosophers of us all
the prospect of it in reality
disturbs time itself
lifelong patterns fall from us
as withered leaves lay bare the trees in winter
and did we really yesterday believe
in mortgages and birthdays
in homes and holidays next year
in such blind innocence.
philosophers are mad
or must become so
when face to face
with such great sadness.

Grief by Norah Leney
Deep sobs -
that start beneath my heart
and hold my body in a grip that hurts.
The lump that swells inside my throat
brings pain that tries to choke.
Then tears course down my cheeks -
I drop my head in my so empty hands
abandoning myself to deep dark grief
and know that with the passing time
will come relief.
That though the pain may stay
there soon will come a day
when I can say your name and be at peace.

Shakespeare tells us to talk about our sorrow. We can’t argue with this wisdom.  If you don’t have someone you can talk to about how you are feeling, don’t be afraid to tell your GP and they will be able to put you in touch with bereavement support near you.

Macbeth - Shakespeare

Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’erfraught heart, and bids it break.

Time heals. So the well-meaning friend may tell you.  Perhaps memorising these few lines will provide a good response?

Words about Grief by Elizabeth Jennings
Time does not heal,
It makes a half-stitched scar
That can be broken and you feel
Grief as total as in its first hour.

Feeling lost in despair can be part of grieving. If you are feeling utterly lost, please seek help from a friend or family member or your GP. You do not need to suffer alone.

Lost in Despair by Marjorie Pizer

Lately I have been letting my life
Fall into pieces about me.
All the old familiar ways have become meaningless.
I have been lost in despair’s dark depths.
I have been lost in a forest of ills,
Wandering alone and calling for help,
I have looked to death as an escape
From the intolerable agony within.
Now it is time for me to turn form death
And chart another path.
Girding myself with courage and with hope,
I must find new tasks
And make a new beginning from an old and finished ending.

Overwhelmed by Marjorie Pizer

When I feel overwhelmed by destruction,
Let me go down to the sea.
Let me sit by the immeasurable ocean
And watch the surf
Beating in and running out all day and all night
Let me sit by the sea
And have the bitter sea winds
Slap my cheeks with their cold, damp hands
Until I am sensible again.
Let me look at the sky at night
And let the stars tell me
Of limitless horizons and unknown universes
Until I am grown calm and strong once more.