Two poems to help you deal with grief
Forgive, forget, move on. Because life is incredibly short
The oldest person in the world died yesterday at 117. Asked earlier this month by a government official how she felt about living so long, she replied, “It seemed rather short.”
We often grieve, mourn and hold grudges as though it weren’t. I know people in their mid-60’s who still talk lots about the terrible parenting they had, people who can’t get over a death for longer than they have left to live, and people who grieve the end of a partnership decades later.
I have also known grief, mourning and grudges that I couldn’t get over even though I knew I should, once a grief so relentless that I had to calculate what percent of my remaining life expectancy I had spent in the grief. Four percent—too much but I couldn’t help it.
Some can get over it with what to my ears are dubious propositions. Your child dies but you say “she’s in a better place now,” as though we know what happens after life and that it’s somehow better.
Or they get over it with a valid proposition like “Others suffer more than you” which is true, though replacing grief with shame at one’s pettiness is a hard pill to swallow.
Key to getting over it is time of course, and proving to yourself through re-engagement in the world that there’s life after death, after bad parenting, after loss.
But key too is finding your way to greater intimacy with the human condition, which includes such sorrows. To be one with us all—what this week I’m calling Poignanthropy—not philanthropy (optimism about humanity) or misanthropy (pessimism about humanity) but poignant, bittersweet regard for us. The wonderful horrible pieces of work we are.
For that I find a few poems especially helpful. They’re the pages I turn to in my secular hymnal when I need to pray for a fast recovery, mine or anyone’s.
Here are a few, these about getting over bad parenting:
Not Bad, Dad, Not Bad
Jan Heller Levi
I think you are most yourself when you are swimming;
slicing the water with each stroke,
the funny way you breathe, your mouth cocked
as though you’re yawning.
You’re neither fantastic nor miserable
at getting from here to there.
You wouldn’t win any medals, Dad,
but you wouldn’t drown.
I think how different everything might have been
had I judged your loving
like I judge your sidestroke, your butterfly,
your Australian crawl.
But I always thought I was drowning
in that icy ocean between us,
I always thought you were moving too slowly to save me,
When you were moving as fast as you can.
She has, at breakfast, a list of things
she thought of during the night. She wants to
say that she killed a leapfrog, once–
put it on the radiator,
and it got off, and she put it back on,
and it got off, and she put it back on
and spread it out. She wants to tell me
she did not cry at her mother’s funeral,
she shows me how she peered between
the funeral home’s curtain-panels, at
the audience, her lips squinched up,
her eyes slitted, like a young hex.
She wasn’t sorry when her mother died,
she and her sister just looked at each other,
and got in her sister’s car, driving half
the night, talking and planning.
She hunches at the breakfast table, she consults
her list. Her mother threw her term paper
out the window, into the rain.
Her mother came to her classroom and told
the other fifth graders that she was a liar.
Her mother sat her on the toilet till she stuck—I knew that,
her mother took her curlers out in her sleep—I knew that,
Her mother arrived two hours late
for a party in her honor, and wouldn’t let her children
eat or drink anything, because
the party was in her honor. My mother’s fierce
eye narrows at me, as if
she is furious with me—when she used to bite
her nails, her mother tied her to the bed
and would not let her get up to pee.
How many times did she do that?
One, I think, my mother says,
and I look at her—she tied me up
the once. You know what this is called now, I
say, Mom? You were a little abused—
not badly, but a little abused.
She laughs without pleasure, she looks at me with-
out delight or sorrow, she says, I never thought of that. And I
put my arms around her, stroke
the hardish lump on her back, her permanented
wee head feels too close to my breast—
but if she tries anything, I think wildly, it would
not be hard to break her wrist. I
pet her cartilaginous hump,
She was a child, she arrived without having harmed anyone.
she had formed in darkness, inside her mother, in
the liquid her mother had never touched
and had little to do with. She formed in pallor,
the shapes of what would be her breasts
and womb swimming, free, through her body,
toward their place of mooring.