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Good Grief: Healing Through Poetry?
Copyright©2005 by Nathan Harms

It has been said that there are 5 stages of grief.

They are generally listed as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While the sequence is not a rule, it's a pattern many of us who have suffered bereavement (or even inconvenience) will recognize.

The common wisdom is that the discomforted person must deal with each of these possibilities on the journey to recovery, although itís also recognized that the journey can vary, person to person.

An Umbrella for Grief

There can be another vital component to grief recovery—it's called "poetry."

Where does the poetry fit into the sequence of the 5 stages? Poetry is not actually one of the stages of grief; it encompasses the 5 stages. Poetry is like an umbrella under which denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance huddle together to process the storm of grief or sorrow that is pelting down in torrents.

If you are a poet and try to traverse the journey from loss to recovery without the use of poetry, you are in for a more difficult journey than necessary. Poetry cannot solve the problems of loss, but it can allow the various stages to be expressed in healthy ways—and it can even allow the various stages of recovery to communicate with each other. It allows your denial to talk to your anger, for example. And while writing out your "bargain" in poetry, don't be surprised if you suddenly stumble into acceptance when you least expected it. Poetry can do this for you.

The writing of poetry can be a powerful therapy, moving you towards faster healing.

Dealing with Denial

How does this work? Let's look at the first stage of grief, denial. Your medical doctor has advised you that the lump in your breast may be malignant, and that a biopsy is required to evaluate your health and prognosis. The stage of denial may have you saying things like this:

"No one in my family has ever had breast cancer."
"I'm too young to have cancer."
"Everyone knows how healthy and fit I am. I'm a vegetarian. I can't have cancer."
"I'll go to another doctor. This is probably just a harmless cyst."

If you're a poet you're permitted to experience these denials just like anyone else, but you also have the tools to process them in the form of poetry. Don't deny the God-given gift of poetry its ability to shelter you through the stages of grief.

Write your denial out into a poem. Hereís an example of an excellent poem by Jan Wood about breast cancer, "April Winter." Do you see how the poem expresses (or implies) all the stages of grief, yet arrives at a place of acceptance and peace at the feet of God?

King David's Poetry Balm

The Biblical psalmist, King David, is a perfect example of a man who used poetry to deal with grief. There are many examples from the book of Psalms, but let's look at just one. Hopefully, you'll find encouragement in the fact that this Godly poet (a man after God's own heart) used poetry to process the most difficult challenges and losses of his life.

Here's the text of Psalm 13 (I've used the King James Version because it's not protected by copyright):

1.How long wilt thou forget me, O LORD? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me? 2.How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? how long shall mine enemy be exalted over me? 3.Consider and hear me, O LORD my God: lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; 4.Lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him; and those that trouble me rejoice when I am moved. 5.But I have trusted in thy mercy; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. 6.I will sing unto the LORD, because he hath dealt bountifully with me.

It's obvious that David is feeling a great loss here, as evidenced by verses one and two. The grief is palpable. "…having sorrrow in my heart daily…" certainly sounds like depression. He feels a gnawing loss of the Lord's presence. Notice in verses three and four that he "bargains" with God. He raises the possibility of death, and ridicule from his enemies.

But then in verse 5 the poem does an about-face of sorts, remembering that he has trusted previously in God and can count on salvation. In the conclusion he is singing praises—a long way from his initial statement, "How long wilt thou forget me?"

Although we cannot trace the 5 stages of grief in a linear fashion in Psalm 13, we can see that David has used this psalm (poem) to work out his feelings of loss and bring the experience to something positive.

As you apply the practice of poetry to your own loss, no matter how profound or seemingly trivial, remember that grief is not an experience that requires rational treatment or fairness. Give yourself permission to shout at your loss, vent your anger or express your depression. Poetry is powerful enough to say everything you needóand God is big enough and loves you enough to listen to it all, understand it all, and bring you through it all.

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