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Expressive Poetry for Grieving.

Published: Mar 7, 11:43 am

I have experienced two losses this year, my sister in law in January and my wife’s sister in law in February, both passing away on the first day of the month. As I felt close to each of these family members, my sense of loss is painful, compounded by the close proximity in time of these deaths.

The complexity of feelings generated by the loss of a loved one can be bewildering, especially just after the event. Emotions can include anger, rage, shame, guilt, despair and self-blame. Its important that these feelings are allowed to be expressed without being bypassed or dismissed. For me, one persistent feeling was that of disbelief. How could it be that these two special people in my life suddenly no longer existed, albeit on the physical plane? I needed an outlet to express this ‘impossibility’, this affront to rationality and common sense. To label my reaction as simply a form of denial was not helpful. Perhaps denial is a healthy normal reaction in the initial stage of grief, a kind of emotional anaesthesia. Brigid Berlin, a close friend of Andy Warhol the Pop Artist, when interviewed about his death in 1979, gave this response:

When people would die, Andy would think it was so abstract, that’s what he would always say – Oh Brig, they’ve just gone to Bloomingdale’s, you know, they’ve just gone away and haven’t come back – and that’s all he could ever say, and now I can understand that, it is that abstract, he’s just gone, he’s just not here.

For Warhol, the abstraction of death, the fact that it doesn’t seem to make sense, was something he was able to express through his art. For me, at this difficult time, it was through writing poetry:

Death seems so implausible Impossible to comprehend “Slipped the mortal coil” “Passed over to the other side” These words and past tenses Defy all my five senses.

Poetry, like the other expressive arts including music, dance, painting etc., is a creative process, and as such is able to express depth of feeling and thought. Nicholas F. Mazza, a licensed Clinical Social Worker, has encouraged the writing of poetry with her bereaved clients, as a way of creating…

… a safety valve to express painful feelings, provide a sense of order and control, honour the memory of a loved one, and promote group interaction. (Mazza, N. (2016) The Collaborative Poem, in Techniques of Grief Therapy by Neimeyer, R. Routledge p. 313.)

There is growing evidence that supports the view that expressive writing enhances mental health, (L’Abate, L., & Sweeney, L.G. (Eds.). 2011. Research on writing Approaches in Mental Health. Bingley, UK Emerald Group) with methods being developed in the form of Poetry Therapy ( Mazza, N. (2003). Poetry therapy: Theory and Practice. New York: Brunner-Routledge.)

Although people may be put off by the idea of creating poetry, seeing it as a highbrow, rarefied activity, this doesn’t have to be the case. Grammatical rules and stylistic considerations can all be put aside. Such expressive poems do not have to have artistic value or be aesthetically appealing. It is the the exploration and expression of feelings, not the poem itself that is paramount.

Some examples include the following:

1/ Acrostic Starters

The first letter of each line spell out a word. Perhaps the name of the loved one who has died -


*E*very day she
*L*ooked forward to a new
*N*ever a dull moment for

2/ Colour Choice

Colours can have universal, symbolic meaning, blue for sadness, red for anger, green for envy. However, they can just as easily have very personal, subjective meaning. Red for the colour of my daughter’s hair (positive connotations), blue for spirituality, green for the Christmas Tree I used to love as a child. One could choose a colour that expresses grief, and use it repetitively in each line:

Blue days
Blue ways
Sing the blues
Forget the blues
Blue suede shoes
Dance the blues
Blue note
Blue coat
Blue was your favorite colour.

Although poetry writing can provide an individual, personal way of processing loss, working through grief in such an expressive way with an experienced therapist (e.g. art psychotherapist) can also be helpful. The ‘Collaborative Poem’ as developed by Mazza (2016), is also another way in which groups, communities and grieving families can come together supportively to generate poems that have a collective force, ameliorating the sense of alienation and loss that can accompany grief.