Poetry

7 of the Best Poems About Losing a Loved One

Losing someone can take many forms. Perhaps a friendship falters and you are no longer soulmates as you once thought you were. Or at some point you are forced to watch as your grandmother’s personality slowly fades before Alzheimer’s takes her from this life. Sometimes someone close to you gets married and, even though you’ll always be close, your relationship has shifted and you mourn what your friendship used to be. In all these ways, I have lost someone. But I have found that reading through or listening to poems about losing a loved one, or mourning, is always helpful for me. If you are currently sitting with your grief, here are seven poems about losing a loved one that I hope are helpful.

Poems About Healing

“feast on it” by Cleo Wade

On Father’s Day, earlier this year, Cleo Wade posted a compassionate poem on Instagram about healing. The poet acknowledges the tenderness and patience required when celebrating either of the parental figure centered holidays. While some families have no qualms praising their parents, many are mourning or processing. Wade writes in the post’s caption, “So many of us are walking around with broken hearts, raising kids with broken hearts. Still doing the best we can.” I love how Wade shares vulnerably, and reminds us that healing is coming.

“In Lieu of Flowers” by Shawna Lemay

I’ve attended funerals my whole life. When I was six or seven, my siblings and I stood together in dress pants, crisp shirts, and fitted dresses, and sang at the funeral of one of our neighbors who passed away. (At one funeral reception, I happily drank so many Shirley Temples that I was banned by my parents from drinking them for years…) At each of these services, flowers always played a strange, scented part. In my adult years I’ve been touched by the requests from families for donations to charities or other sweet, lasting alternatives to sending flowers. Shawna Lemay’s poem, “In Lieu of Flowers,” includes endless recommendations for ways to celebrate others or oneself rather than sending flowers. From champagne to collecting leaves, the poem speaks of healing and a cherishment of life that is both comforting and inspiring.

A few years ago I read a friend’s father’s obituary on Facebook. His father had requested in lieu of flowers, please take a friend or loved one out for lunch. 

Although I love flowers very much, I won’t see them when I’m gone. So in lieu of flowers:  Buy a book of poetry written by someone still alive, sit outside with a cup of tea, a glass of wine, and read it out loud, by yourself or to someone, or silently.
Spend some time with a single flower. A rose maybe. Smell it, touch the petals.
Really look at it. 
Drink a nice bottle of wine with someone you love.
Or, Champagne. And think of what John Maynard Keynes said, “My only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne.” Or what Dom Perignon said when he first tasted the stuff: “Come quickly! I am tasting stars!” 
Take out a paint set and lay down some colours.
Watch birds. Common sparrows are fine. Pigeons, too. Geese are nice. Robins.
In lieu of flowers, walk in the trees and watch the light fall into it. Eat an apple, a really nice big one. I hope it’s crisp. 
Have a long soak in the bathtub with candles, maybe some rose petals.
Sit on the front stoop and watch the clouds. Have a dish of strawberry ice cream in my name. 
If it’s winter, have a cup of hot chocolate outside for me. If it’s summer, a big glass of ice water. 
If it’s autumn, collect some leaves and press them in a book you love. I’d like that. 
Sit and look out a window and write down what you see. Write some other things down. 
In lieu of flowers, 
I would wish for you to flower. 
I would wish for you to blossom, to open, to be beautiful.

(Poem from Transactions with Beauty.)

Poems About Death

“My Grandmother’s Ballroom” by Phil Kaye

Absolutely no list of poems about losing a loved one can be complete — in my mind — without poet Phil Kaye. In a live performance of “My Grandmother’s Ballroom,” Kaye walks the audience through the evolution of his relationship with his grandmother as her memory fades. I hold this poem especially close as I lost one of my grandmothers to Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago. Many of the moments I shared with Grandma are treasured, but I will forever mourn all the years we lost as the disease stole precious pieces of her, bit by bit, through the years. Kaye handles his own story with his grandmother delicately.

“What Changes” by Naomi Shihab Nye

Sometimes when someone passes away, they leave much behind. Perhaps it is a beautiful painting or a delicious recipe. For Naomi Shihab Nye, her father left behind something intangible but potent: hopes. While there are notes of sadness in “What Changes,” the poet asks the reader to consider a better world. The poem always makes me remember the wishes of those who have passed on, specifically my Grandma and my great-great aunt’s dedication to faith and their hopes I would find such joy and fulfillment in my own.

My father’s hopes travel with me

years after he died. Someday

we will learn how to live.  All of us

surviving without violence

never stop dreaming how to cure it.

What changes? Crossing a small street

in Doha Souk, nut shops shuttered,

a handkerchief lies crumpled in the street,

maroon and white, like one my father had,

from Jordan.  Perfectly placed

in his pocket under his smile, for years.

He would have given it to anyone.

How do we continue all these days?

(Poem from Poets.org.)

“And What Good Will Your Vanity Be When The Rapture Comes” by Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib speaks beautifully in metaphors and symbols (as always). In “And What Good Will Your Vanity Be When the Rapture Comes,” the poet switches between a real-time conversation and grief over the loss of childhood friends and mentors through the years. “But everyone I love is not here,” he says, “and I mean here like on this street corner with me while I turn the sky a darker shade of red on my phone, and I mean here like everyone I love who I can still touch and not pass my fingers through like the wind in a dream.” For anyone caught up in the past and the present of mourning, Abdurraqip delivers an unforgettable poem.

Poems About Mourning Friendship

“On Leaving the Bachelorette Brunch” by Rachel Wetzsteon

Perhaps you’ve seen it before, but a dear soul in your life falls head over heels in love and suddenly there’s a ring on their finger. You’re overcome with delight that they have found the love of their life, but…You also mourn what you will never again have. I have watched and stood by many loved ones as they have been happily married. I am often in awe of the lifelong commitment my friends and family have made; their happiness in someone else makes me tease and squeeze and hug them for the joy of it. But that doesn’t mean our friendship is not altered. In “On Leaving the Bachelorette Brunch,” Rachel Wetzsteon puts into words what I have so often felt when another friend ties the knot.

Because I gazed out the window at birds
doing backflips when the subject turned
to diamonds, because my eyes glazed over
with the slightly sleepy sheen your cake will wear,

never let it be said that I’d rather be
firing arrows at heart-shaped dartboards
or in a cave composing polyglot puns.
I crave, I long for transforming love

as surely as leaves need water and mouths seek bread.
But I also fear the colder changes
that lie in wait and threaten to turn
moons of honey to pools of molasses,

broad front porches to narrow back gardens,
and tight rings of friendship to flimsy things
that break when a gold band brightly implies
Leave early, go home, become one with the one

the world has told you to tend and treasure
above all others. You love, and that’s good;
you are loved, that’s superb; you will vanish
and reap some happy rewards. But look at the birds.

(Poem from Poetry Foundation.)

“When People Move On Without You” by Morgan Harper Nichols

To round out this list of poems about losing a loved one, I turn to the encouragement of Morgan Harper Nichols. Friendship breakups are a legitimate cause for mourning. I have went through some pretty rough friendships where it ended up that moving in different directions was the only option. While both my friend and I had our flaws and issues, I still look fondly back at the adventures we shared. There’s a clenching in my chest when I see she is having a baby and I’m only finding out through social media, even though we have not spoken in years. Nichols captures this feeling of pain and then reframes the sensation with hope.

I know the shore to healing can seem a long swim away, but I hope you find some peace in these poems on your journey.

If you’re still hungry to read poetry beyond these poems about losing a loved one, I recommend checking out 15 Soul-Stirring Poems About Music and Its Power.

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