If you’ve suffered a great loss—like the death of someone close to you—reading or writing poetry that reflects on this painful experience can actually help you heal and move forward.
No one goes through life without experiencing loss. Grieving for a relative, friend or schoolmate who has passed away can be one of life’s toughest challenges. Loss can also come in other forms, like moving house, being injured, or finding out somebody isn't trustworthy. All these things can affect us deeply, and sometimes, it can feel pretty overwhelming.
Believe it or not, reading or writing poetry that reflects on this dark time can actually give you a sense of comfort and help you to work through what you’re feeling (or to better understand what friend may be going through). Many of our writers use poetry to express their feelings of loss.
The five poems about loss featured here are famous for using language that fearlessly strives to say what others may hide or have difficulty expressing. Read them, and see what kind of emotional response they bring out in you.
“Epitaph on William Muir” by Robert Burns
In this poem from the Scottish 18th century writer, the narrator remembers William Muir as an honest, intelligent person with a big heart. Then, he raises a poignant question about the afterlife in these closing lines: “If there’s another world, he lives in bliss; if there is none, he made the best of this.”
“The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” by William Carlos Williams
Few lines capture how overwhelming loss can be as well as this line from the voice of a female narrator who has lost her husband of 35 years:
“Today my son told me/that in the meadows/at the edge of the heavy woods/in the distance, he saw/trees of white flowers./I feel that I would like/to go there/and fall into those flowers/and sink into the marsh near them.” Read more of this poem here.
"The Missing” by Suheir Hammad
This Palestinian-American writer’s poem is powerful because it delves into how persistent grief is. She writes how loss “seeps into neck hollows,” how it is “forever shadowing vision,” and how it makes “sleep elusive” and your “smile illusive.” Anyone who is grieving can relate to how deeply a loss can affect your entire state of being.
“You Were You Are Elegy” by Mary Jo Bang
Writer Mary Jo Bang details the conflicting emotions she feels as she meditates on her son’s death from a drug overdose in the lines of the poem:
“…Thinking/About how it was/To talk to you./How sometimes it was wonderful/And sometimes it was awful./How drugs when drugs were/Undid the good almost entirely/But not entirely/Because good could always be seen.”
This poem is one of many in a book that she wrote on the topic. Writing the book “took me outside of my grief for a moment,” Bang has said. “It has become something that I feel like we did together, and there’s consolation in that.” It serves as a good reminder that writing about heartbreaking experiences can be therapeutic.
“O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman
Beyond losing close family members, we can also lose our national leaders and heroes. Here, Whitman voices the emotions of thousands of Americans by grieving at the horror of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination while simultaneously celebrating him for ending the Civil War and reuniting the nation. He writes:
“O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done/The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we south is won…But O heart! heart! heart!/O the bleeding drops of red,/Where on the deck my Captain lies,/Fallen cold and dead.”