Poetry, grief and healing

Categories: Care and People & Places.

After her father’s death, award-winning poet Yvonne Reddick worked with St Catherine’s Hospice in Preston to run a course of six writing workshops for bereaved people. Here she explains how writing poetry can help to ease the pain of losing someone.

When you’ve lost someone close to you, it can be hard to discuss what you’ve been through. After the flurry of attention at the funeral is over, it can be even harder to get the social support you need. That’s why I asked St Catherine’s Hospice if they would like a series of writing workshops for members of their community who had been bereaved.

Poetry plays a special role when people are grieving. Many people read poems at funerals: Jackie Kay’s ‘Darling’ is one of my personal favourites. At the anniversaries of the First World War, people turned to poetry to remember a shattering experience of shared loss.

Research on expressive writing shows that just ‘getting it off your chest’ by writing about difficult experiences can be helpful. You can get rid of what you’ve written, or you can keep it and use it to reflect on your experiences.

Writing groups are great for providing both creative outlets and social support. I was keen to see if we could develop a small community of people where we could talk and write about grief and healing. I was working with three lovely counsellors, who were there to give expert advice about new methods that I could turn into writing exercises.

Towards the beginning of the course, I asked participants to rate their wellbeing on a scale, to see how they were doing. Some reported low levels of optimism about the future, or low confidence. We always began our sessions by checking in with people to see how they were, and ended by talking about how we’d take care of ourselves.

I wanted to make sure that everyone knew that I’d experienced loss, and written about it – so I read my poem ‘Risk,’ in memory of my dad, when I first met the group. For the first session, we began by writing about the loss of a precious object. This was a good way of thinking about the many emotions that come up when we experience bigger losses. Poems such as Christopher Reid’s ‘A Scattering’ helped us to consider what we go through during the grieving process.

When the counsellors told me about the idea of ‘life imprints’ – the ways those close to us have shaped our personalities – I thought it would be great to share some of Seamus Heaney’s beautiful poems in memory of his mum. He has a wonderful way of capturing small details: the farmhouse kitchen where the two of them peeled potatoes; the way she told him not to drop crumbs at tea. We used one of his poems to create poems of our own, about the ways our loved ones have touched our lives.

During the last session, we started to imagine healing. Poetry by Karen McCarthy Woolf and Ocean Vuong helped us to think about rebuilding our lives after loss and trauma. When we talked and wrote about healing, many of us found ourselves drawn to nature: the seaside, gardens, lakes, forests.

By the end of the course, scores on the wellbeing scale had increased. People were saying they felt more optimistic about the future, more interested in new things. I’ll never forget a gentleman whose infectious grin made him seem far younger than his eighty-three years. He said that the poetry workshops had ‘released creativity in me.’ Now, he was writing to capture memories: holidays, the seaside, his dad’s writing desk.

One lady said that she’d been a bit unsure about writing poems at the beginning, but she’d enjoyed being creative and meeting other people who understood what it was like to lose a loved one. She’d finished writing a poem during a violent storm, and the writing process had comforted her.

If you would like to try writing to remember a loved one, here is a short writing exercise that you can use.

Writing about loss

From losing a precious object to the death of a dear friend, loss is an inspiring topic for poets. In ‘One Art,’ Elizabeth Bishop begins with losing her keys and ends with the loss of a relationship.

Loss has inspired some of our most moving poems, old and new: Denise Levertov’s ‘Talking to Grief,’ Karen McCarthy Woolf’s ‘An Aviary of Small Birds,’ Ocean Vuong’s ‘Telemachus’

You don’t have to start out with a devastating experience of loss. You might prefer to begin with writing about losing a precious ring, or the day your pet died. Smaller absences and bereavements can give you really useful ways of writing and thinking about greater losses.

Writing prompt

Objects can tell us so much about their former owners: a battered teddy, an old jacket, an heirloom watch. Check out Fiona Moore’s poem ‘The Shirt,’ Karen McCarthy Woolf’s ‘White Butterflies’ or Tony Harrison’s ‘Turns’ for examples of how objects are used to write about loss. Some objects bring back happy memories; others may remind us of our grief.

Feeling ready to write about loss? Pick an object that you are going to keep, to remind you of a person you have lost. You could even use your poem as a keepsake, to hold your memories of that person.

Make some notes about it, to start you off.

  • What does it look like?
  • What does it sound like, if it has a sound? Feel like? Smell like?
  • Does it have a use?
  • Who made it?
  • What is its history?
  • What memories does it hold for you?

Now, turn your notes into a poem. You can use the examples of poems above for inspiration.

Be kind to yourself! If the loss still feels raw, you can always stop, put your draft away, and come back to it later.

For more information get in touch with Yvonne Reddick