Did you know that the famous quote “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” is actually an extract from an epic poem about grief? Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote In Memoriam over the course of 17 years following the sudden death of a close friend and it beautifully describes the experience of grief, from the initial sorrow to the eventual acceptance, in the years after a bereavement.
Grief, as Tennyson observed, is inextricably linked to love. We will all have to deal with the loss of a loved one at some point in our lives and we can only hope that when the time comes, we will be able to cope with our loss, learn to live with our grief and find a way to move forward.
The reason I’m writing about grief today is because this week marks the eighth anniversary of my nanna’s death. She was 85, so she’d lived a long life, but I was still shocked when the phone call came because I genuinely thought she’d live to be 100; she’d bounced back from the brink so many times that I’m sure my boss thought “I need time off to visit my nanna in hospital” was as overused an excuse as “the dog ate my homework”, and my mum and I used to joke that Nanna was stubbornly hanging on for her telegram from the Queen.
It’s no exaggeration to say that I was devastated when my nanna died, as she was more like a parent than a grandparent to me and she was the first person in my life that I had lost. My only prior experience of grief was crying over the loss of family pets as we buried them in the garden of my childhood home (I dread to think what the new owners would find if they ever discovered the flowerbed graveyard!) and I think I must have written this poem (in 1997) with those experiences in mind:
Looking back at this I think I must have been inspired by Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye, which is a popular funeral reading (though I had never been to a funeral at the time). Poetry is often read aloud at funerals because it can help people to express their sorrow (e.g. Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden) and offer comfort to the mourners (e.g. Death Is Nothing At All by Henry Scott-Holland) – as well as to say goodbye.
In the days after my nanna died, somewhere inbetween howling and sobbing, I wrote a poem and asked the funeral director to place it inside her coffin. I wish I could have read it at her memorial service but I didn’t think I’d be able to get through it without crying, and I still regret that I didn’t at least try. The poem is too personal for me to feel comfortable sharing in full, but here’s an extract:
I love you, I hope I made you proud, I’m grateful for all that you did.
I’m sorry I can’t say these words aloud but I’ll send them on instead.
I’ll miss you and think of you often, long after this day is done,
and I know that you’ll watch over me as I live what’s yet to come.
It wasn’t the best poem I’d ever written but it was the only way I could express myself at the time, by putting pen to paper, and I think my nanna would have appreciated it (she always enjoyed and encouraged my poetry). I hope she’d like this new poem too, about how grief slowly turns into something which is easier to live with but never really goes away. If you’ve ever lost someone, I hope that you’ll relate to it.
If you’d like to share your thoughts on grief or on any of the poems featured in this post, please use the comments below.