For many people, writing is a coping mechanism. It helps us celebrate the good things in life and process the bad. Poems often carry themes that touch on universal experiences like life, death, love, and loss. One such theme is grief — something that everyone experiences eventually. Grief comes after loss, and loss comes in many forms. It can be the loss of a loved one, a pet, a golden opportunity, a keepsake, or a thousand other things, but in some ways we still grieve.
The theme of grief comes across in poems in many different ways. Some works prompt readers to understand the emotion through empathy, others discuss how it comes to be, and a few explore the idea of hope despite it. If you're grieving or looking to support someone who is, you may find solace in these five works which each discuss grief in their own way.
Top Grief Poems
- "Caged Bird" by Maya Angelou. In "Caged Bird," Angelou uses birds as a metaphor for longing for freedom and for grieving from the loss or lack of it. The juxtaposition of the caged and free birds helps the reader understand the perspective of the caged bird. It readers an idea of the little things the caged bird has lost, providing a discussion of what it is to grieve for something often taking for granted. The poem asks the reader to empathize with the caged bird even if they do not directly identify with him, and to take solace in his perseverance if they do. Despite the grief and longing from having no freedom, the bird sings a song that reaches beyond the confines of his cage and in that way finds some way out of his grief.
- "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas. This work by Dylan Thomas also explores the theme of hope despite grief yet in a different way. Where "Caged Bird" displays a noble, defiant hope, "Do not go gentle into that good night" is about fighting for that hope even when it does not come easily. It is believed that Thomas wrote the poem as a rallying cry for his dying father. Its refrain, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light," captures the central theme — to fight for hope even in the face of loss and to hang on to hope even through grief.
- "Remember" by Christina Rossetti. A popular poem for condolence cards, "Remember" is written in first person guiding the reader through the process of grief from the perspective of the thing grieved for. Like the last two poems, "Remember" explores grief while maintaining a degree of positivity. It is about the place of remembrance in grieving, made clear by opening the poem with, "Remember me when I am gone away." Through the progression of the work, Rossetti transitions to a sort of condolence for the reader, affirming for them that it is natural and healthy to begin to forget with the words, "Better by far you should forget and smile / Than that you should remember and be sad."
- "'Hope' is the thing with feathers (314)" by Emily Dickinson. This poem is almost more about finding hope than dealing with grief, but the concept of hope is intertwined with that of loss. Essentially, one cannot exist without the other. In this poem, Dickinson reminds readers that hope is immutable. Each stanza highlights the endurance of hope through hardship and how almost effortlessly, hope springs eternal. In the context of grief, this poem is a reminder that to find a path forward all you have to do is look within. Life goes on, hope remains, the birds will always sing.
- "Separation" by W.S. Merwin. A short and sweet work, "Separation" captures the essence of grief with simplicity. It doesn't ask anything of the reader aside from attention enough to experience the work. Grief can be exhausting, and while hope is always something to strive for, sometimes it will be temporarily out of reach. A work that is relatable without being extremely in-depth is just as valuable as ones that want to guide a reader on a longer journey. This poem demonstrates that sometimes it's best to just feel raw emotion.
Hear more on the topic of grief and healing from The Jed Foundation, a trusted partner working to promote mental and emotional health.