Mourner Support: Tools and Resources
Additional Poems and Readings for Mourners
Mourners sometimes like to recite poems and other selections—in addition to traditional prayers—during memorial and funeral services and at unveilings. We have included some below grouped into these categories: Readings and poems related to loss, poems when there is the loss of a pregnancy or a child, and poems when there is a loss in the instance of suicide.
In addition, we have provided selected psalms and traditional Hebrew prayers that are typically recited during services of various kinds, the first year of mourning, and at annual remembrances of someone’s death.
Readings and Poems Related to Loss
By W.S. Merwin
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
Four poems by Yehuda Amichai
translated by Chana Bloch, Stephen Mitchell and Chana Kronfeld
Forgetting someone is like forgetting to turn off the lights in the back yard so it stays lit all the next day
But then it’s the light that makes you remember.
An Eternal Window
In a garden I once heard a song or an ancient blessing and above the dark trees a window is always lit, in memory of the face that looked out of it, and that face too was in memory of another lit window.
When a man dies, they say, “He was gathered unto his fathers.” As long as he is alive, his fathers are gathered within him, each cell of his body and soul a delegate from one of his thousands of fathers since the beginning of time.
And every person is a dam between past and future.
What the Living Do
When he dies the dam bursts, the past breaks into the future,
And there is no before or after. All time becomes one time,
like our God: our time is one.
Blessed be the memory of the dam.
By Marie Howe
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
The Sonnets to Orpheus, II #28
And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
Poem by Rainer Maria Rilke
The Sonnets to Orpheus, II #28
Translation by Stephen Mitchell
Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your face
grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.
In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.
And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
In Blackwater Woods
whisper to the silent earth: I'm flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.
By Mary Oliver
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
They Had Names Like Auntie Bea
By Susan Glickman
They had names like Auntie Bea and Aunt Laura and wore tight corsets.
When you put your arms around them you could feel the wires.
They had papery skins; cheeks like moth’s wings that trembled
when you kissed them.
Their husbands were dead, or they were called Sam, or Arthur,
and wore hats even in summer.
They smoked cigars that always went out and they let them go out.
The old people had candies in their pockets, and Kleenex; they carried
pictures of grandchildren and knew all the stories about who was related to
whom, and why, and remembered them.
When I was a child I was told all the stories again and again, who was
related to whom, and why, and who died and why but I always forgot.
Years later, I have no one to tell me the stories. I remember the ladies’ perfumes: lilac, carnation and rose; they smelled like sachets.
And I remember arthritic fingers, wedding bands sunk in the flesh;
I always imagined they’d have to cut them off.
They kept trying to decide whose eyes I had, whose nose,
what were my talents. I didn’t listen.
Now I want to know, I want to know where I fit in that long line
of descendants from the country of the old.
By Constantine P. Cavafy
Alexandria, Egypt, 1911, Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that one on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfumes of every kind -
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
By D. H. Lawrence
There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of
vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps,
we know nothing of, within us.
Oh when man has escaped from the barbed-wire entanglement
of his own ideas and his own mechanical devices
there is a marvelous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty
and fearless face-to-face awareness of now-naked life
and me, and you, and other men and women
and grapes, and ghouls, and ghosts and green moonlight
and ruddy-orange limbs stirring the limbo
of the unknown air, and eyes so soft
softer than the space between the stars.
And all things, and nothing, and being and not-being
when at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure
of Know-Thyself, knowing we can never know,
we can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort
and dangle in a last fastidious fine delight
as the fuchsia does, dangling her reckless drop
of purple after so much putting forth
and slow mounting marvel of a little tree.
By Derek Walcott
Half my friends are dead.
Mourner’s Kaddish for Everyday
I will make you new ones, said earth
No, give me them back, as they were, instead,
with faults and all, I cried.
Tonight I can snatch their talk
from the faint surf's drone
through the canes, but I cannot walk
on the moonlit leaves of ocean
down that white road alone,
or float with the dreaming motion
of owls leaving earth's load.
O earth, the number of friends you keep
exceeds those left to be loved.
The sea-canes by the cliff flash green and silver;
they were the seraph lances of my faith,
but out of what is lost grows something stronger
that has the rational radiance of stone,
enduring moonlight, further than despair,
strong as the wind, that through dividing canes
brings those we love before us, as they were,
with faults and all, not nobler, just there.
By Debra Cash
Build me up of memory
loving and angry, tender and honest.
Let my loss build me a heart of wisdom,
compassion for the world’s many losses
Each hour is mortal
and each hour is eternal
and each hour is our testament.
May I create worthy memories
all the days of my life.
By Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
Love After Love
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.
By Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
The Loss of a Pregnancy or Child
by Dana Gioia
Now you'd be three,
I said to myself,
seeing a child born
the same summer as you.
Now you'd be six,
or seven, or ten.
I watched you grow
in foreign bodies.
Leaping into a pool, all laughter,
or frowning over a keyboard,
but mostly just standing,
taller each time.
How splendid your most
mundane action seemed
in these joyful proxies.
I often held back tears.
Now you are twenty-one.
In Giving I Connect with Others
Finally, it makes sense
that you have moved away
into your own afterlife.
By Isabel Allende
I have lived with passion and in a hurry, trying to accomplish too many things. I never had time to think about my beliefs until my 28-year-old daughter Paula fell ill. She was in a coma for a year and I took care of her at home, until she died in my arms in December of 1992.
During that year of agony and the following year of my grieving, everything stopped for me. There was nothing to do -- just cry and remember. However, that year also gave an opportunity to reflect upon my journey and the principles that hold me together. I discovered that there is consistency in my beliefs, my writing and the way I lead my life. I have not changed, I am still the same girl I was fifty years ago, and the same young woman I was in the seventies. I still lust for life, I am still ferociously independent, I still crave justice and I fall madly in love easily.
Paralyzed and silent in her bed, my daughter Paula taught me a lesson that is now my mantra: You only have what you give. It's by spending yourself that you become rich.
Paula led a life of service. She worked as a volunteer helping women and children, eight hours a day, six days a week. She never had any money, but she needed very little. When she died she had nothing and she needed nothing. During her illness I had to let go of everything: her laughter, her voice, her grace, her beauty, her company and finally her spirit. When she died I thought I had lost everything. But then I realized I still had the love I had given her. I don't even know if she was able to receive that love. She could not respond in any way, her eyes were somber pools that reflected no light. But I was full of love and that love keeps growing and multiplying and giving fruit.
The pain of losing my child was a cleansing experience. I had to throw overboard all excess baggage and keep only what is essential. Because of Paula, I don't cling to anything anymore. Now I like to give much more than to receive. I am happier when I love than when I am loved. I adore my husband, my son, my grandchildren, my mother, my dog, and frankly I don't know if they even like me. But who cares? Loving them is my joy.
Give, give, give -- what is the point of having experience, knowledge or talent if I don't give it away? Of having stories if I don't tell them to others? Of having wealth if I don't share it? I don't intend to be cremated with any of it! It is in giving that I connect with others, with the world and with the divine.
It is in giving that I feel the spirit of my daughter inside me, like a soft presence.
Healing After a Miscarriage
By Merle Feld
Nothing helps. I taste ashes
in my mouth. My eyes are flat,
dead. I want no platitudes,
no stupid shallow comfort.
I hate all pregnant women,
all new mothers, all soft babies.
The space I'd made inside myself
where I'd moved over
to give my beloved room to grow-
now there's a tight angry
bitter knot of hatred there instead.
What is my supplication?
Stupid people and new mothers,
leave me alone.
Deliver me, Lord,
of this bitter afterbirth.
Open my heart
to my husband-lover-friend
that we may comfort each other.
Open my womb that it may yet bear living fruit.
By Galway Kinnell
The bud stands for all things,
Even for those things that don’t flower.
For everything flowers from within of self-blessing.
Though sometimes it is necessary to re-teach
A thing its loveliness.
To put a hand on the brow of the flower and to tell it,
In words and in touch,
It is lovely,
Until it flowers again from, from within, of self-blessing.
By Rabindranath Tagore
It is time for me to go, mother; I am going.
When in the paling darkness of the lonely dawn
you stretch your arms for your baby in the bed,
I shall say, "Baby is not there!"
- mother, I am going.
I shall become a delicate draught of air
and caress you; and I shall be ripples
in the water when you bathe;
and kiss you and kiss you again.
In the gusty night when the rain patters on the leaves
you will hear my whisper in your bed,
and my laughter will flash with the lightning
through the open window into your room.
If you lie awake, thinking of your baby till late into the night,
I shall sing to you form the stars, "Sleep, mother, sleep."
On the straying moonbeams I shall steal over your bed,
and lie upon your bosom while you sleep.
I shall become a dream, and through the little opening
of your eyelids I shall slip into the depths of your sleep;
and when you wake up and look round startled,
like a twinkling firefly I shall flit out into the darkness.
When, on the great festival of PUJA,
the neighbours' children come and play about the house,
I shall melt into the music of the flute
and throb in your heart all day.
Dear suntie will come with your PUJA presents and will ask,
"Where is our baby, sister? Mother you tell her softly,
"He is in the pupils of my eyes,
he is my body and my soul."
Loss Due to Suicide
By Anna Margolin, translated from Yiddish by Ruth Wallach
Tell him this: she couldn’t forgive herself
for her dark depressions.
She walked through her life
with apologetic steps.
Tell that until her death
she faithfully guarded the fire
entrusted to her, with pure hands,
and is burning in that same fire.
How in her hours of bravado
she battled hard with God,
how deeply her blood sang,
and how lightweights destroyed her.