The Poetry of Grief

 “The Poetry of Grief”

By Elizabeth Levine, M.A., M.P.H, M.F.A.



It is said that there is nothing worse than losing a child. This I know is true. My daughter Charlotte died on January 3, 2009, for no medical reason. No medical reason. When I rise in the morning and open my eyes to the flat grey of a winter’s day, these are the first words I hear. When I fall asleep at night, it is her face that flashes before my eyes before they shut.

What then to do with all this grief? For me, the answer came from writing both poetry and creative non-fiction. I would stay awake all night, night after night, after she died and write and write and write, because when I went to bed at night I would hear her cry.

For poets, we have long known the therapeutic value of writing to heal trauma and we often say, “Writing our way back home.” Research conducted by Dr. James W. Pennebaker, PH.D. at the University of Texas at Austin’s Psychology Department in his book Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal has proven empirically that writing about trauma and emotional upheaval improves health outcomes and helps patients recover from traumatic events.

But for many writers who have lost children, we already knew that expressive writing was therapeutic. In particular, the Poet, New York University Professor and Guggenheim Foundation staff member Edward Hirsch has transcended grief in his book of poems, Gabriel, “in which a short life, a bewildering death ,and the unanswerable sorrow of a father come together in such a sustained elegy. This unabashed sequence speaks directly from Hirsch’s heart to our own, without sentimentality. From its opening lines-“The funeral director opened the coffin/And there he was alone/From the waist up”- Hirsch’s account is poignantly direct and open to the strange vicissitudes and tricks of grief.”

As an English Professor at William Paterson University and Montclair State University, I always teach my students two of his poems, “Execution” and an excerpt from Gabriel, page 73

I had the personal good fortune to study with Edward Hirsch at the Distinguished Poetry Series on October 3, 2015 at the Poetry Center of Passaic County Community College, www.poetrycenterpccc.cpm, which is directed by the renowned poet and champion of Poetry and the Arts, Director Maria Mazziotti Gillian,, whom I have also had the honor of studying with.

We spoke briefly in the dim lighting of the Hamilton House, where the mood outside the airy classroom is lugubrious, as though so much sorrow and so many poets have written there about their own losses and their own healing.

In fact, Hirsch and I exchange hugs and he inscribes in my copy of Gabriel: A Poem “ For Elizabeth, with a shared sense of grief. May poetry help us.” For Hirsch, myself and countless others, writing poetry allows us to “enter the broad stream of human grief and raise in us the strange hope, even consolation, that we find in the writer’s act of witnessing and transformation.

Some nights, I dream of Charlotte, of Gabriel, of Edward Hirsch and I holding hands as if we were lovers for many decades, bound by the same grief; I dream of Brooklyn, where I was born and where Hirsch lives, and I think of the primal need to go home, to a place and time before our children died, where we once were happy and innocent and knew not what the future had in store for us. In other words, I dream of writing my way back home.


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