For the last few years, I’ve been teaching writings workshop for people who are grieving the death of someone close, at a non-profit hospice agency here in Keene. Using journaling, simple poetry writing exercises and sharing our scribblings, we gently help each other move forward in our grieving process.
These classes are always powerful, small miracles made visible in the world. They’ve been so successful, I’m developing an art collage workshop, too. We had our second class last night, and I’m amazed how quickly the group has come together already.
In all these sessions, I’m always anxious when I walk into the room. I remember calling my supervisor, the wise woman known as Lorraine, my first week in. “These people are in such pain!” I exclaimed. “I’m so afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, or be too flippant, and hurt them more.”
“People are pretty tough,” Lorraine said frankly. “Trust me, you’re not going to break them!”
She was right, of course. I am constantly amazed at how courageous and strong these people are, shattered as they are by grief. They shine brightly. I learn so much from them, much much more than I teach them.
But I still worry at the start of every session, and I’m anxious at every meeting. When we write, first thing, the three words that describe how we’re feeling, mine are almost always, “Anxious, Unprepared, Clumsy.”
Until the miracle happens. The power of writing what is in our hearts, and sharing our pain, is a balm. The magic of hearing the voices throughout the ages who have suffered the same pain, the same unbearable sense of loss, echoing in our modern day hearts, somehow helps the healing process.
And by the end of class, we’ve wept, we’ve hugged, we’ve shared, we’ve remembered, and we’ve laughed. All in one brief hour.
The last few days, I’ve been pulling together more poetry to bring to these sessions. Here’s one I found last week:
FOR THOSE WHO HAVE DIED
ELEH EZKERAH – These We Remember
‘Tis a fearful thing
What death can touch.
To love, to hope, to dream,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
But a holy thing,
To love what death can touch.
For your life has lived in me;
Your laugh once lifted me;
Your word was a gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
A holy thing,
What death can touch.
Judah Halevi or
Emanuel of Rome – 12th Century
I read this to the group. “This was written over a thousand years ago,” I said. “Someone felt this way, and wrote these words to you, people he knew he would never know nor meet. He wrote these words because he knew you would be here, today, and he knew you would need to hear them.”
I also love that people now share their favorite poetry with me. I mentioned that I needed more poems on loss and grieving to some friends. One said, “Oh, you have to read Rilke! He’s good for grieving!” An odd phrase, but I found it to be so true. I found this today:
“Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower”
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translation by Joanna Macy + Anita Barrows
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29
And as I wrap up my preparations for the last class in this session, I find this one grabbing at my heart:
I live my life in big circles
that surround all things,
that circle around all that is.
Maybe i will not complete the last circle,
But i will attempt it.
I circle around God
that ancient tower,
and I have been circling
for centuries and millennia,
And i do still not know: am i a falcon,
a storm, or the Great Song.
- Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Br. David Steindl-Rast
Am I a falcon, a storm, or the Great Song?
I don’t even know what that means.
And yet I sense it means…everything.