Comforting words for close friends.
May 20, 2009 5:12 PM   Subscribe

Searching for short poetry (or prose?) appropriate to send 2 close friends who have had sudden family deaths shake their foundations.

Both on-line interstate friends (one I've met frequently, the other I've never met but plan to soon) have had sudden deaths in their families. I want something short'n'sweet I can email to give a little cyber-comfort.

The one I haven't met in person was there when her grandmother passed away after a fall. Ideally I would like to send her something that... um, I can't think how to express it... gently praises her for being there, accompanying someone she loves through such an experience.

The other friend has lost her aunt who was severly disabled for 12 years following a brain aneurysm. Apparently she was quite the party girl beforehand, & her family have already grieved for her loss, for over a decade. My friend is greatly relieved that her aunt is no longer trapped in a totally useless body, but seems to be stunned that it has finally happened. Something about leaving behind imperfect physical bodies to soar free... Any ideas?

I googled, & metafiltered too, but could find nothing just-quite-right. I'm a fan of John Donne & Shakespeare type stuff, but my friends tastes are a little more modern, I think. Thanx in advance.
posted by malibustacey9999 to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
(Props for Donne and Shakespeare)

Have you tried Tennyson?

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
posted by litterateur at 5:35 PM on May 20, 2009

Well, I don't know if it's particularly suited to the specific situations you describe, but this bit of prose has brought me great comfort. I'm sorry for your friends' losses and you're a kind person to think to do this.

I am standing upon that foreshore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, "There! She's gone!" "Gone where?" "Gone from my sight, that's all." She is just as large in mast and spar and hull as ever she was when she left my side; just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of her destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at that moment when someone at my side says, "There! She's gone!" there are other eyes watching her coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, "Here she comes!" And that is dying.
Victor Hugo, from Toilers of the Sea
posted by Majorita at 5:38 PM on May 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Funeral Blues by Auden was ruined by Four Weddings & A Funeral. It's a good poem, if a little maudlin.

The Dead by Billy Collins is a nice poem, but not sure if it's appropriate for what you're looking for. Check it out anyway.

I especially like Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas. However it's more focused on imminent mortality, rather than actual mourning.
posted by Mephisto at 6:01 PM on May 20, 2009

I have always loved A Parable of Immortality by Henry Van Dyke:

I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze
and starts for the blue ocean.

She is an object of beauty and strength,
and I stand and watch until at last she hangs
like a speck of white cloud
just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says,
"There she goes!"

Gone where?

Gone from my sight . . . that is all.

She is just as large in mast and hull and spar
as she was when she left my side
and just as able to bear her load of living freight
to the place of destination.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her.

And just at the moment
when someone at my side says,
"There she goes!"
there are other eyes watching her coming . . .
and other voices ready to take up the glad shout . . .

"Here she comes!"

another version I have heard (and can't find the source for) is equally as touching:

"As I stand on a mountaintop as the great bird approaches,
she is small in my sight but grows larger on approach,
until I am blessed with a full sight of her graceful wings,
proud countenance and good company.
All too quickly, she grows small again on the horizon and disappears from view.
And I call out: There, she's gone!
But there are other mountaintops beyond me.
And at the precise moment when I note the great bird's departure from my view,
I know there are new eyes taking up the sight of her and fresh voices calling out:
Here, she comes!"
posted by kidsleepy at 6:16 PM on May 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is slightly off-topic, but I was intrigued by the disparity between Majorita and kidsleepy's contributions. After a bit of research, it looks like Hugo used the idea in the last chapter of The Toilers of the Sea, entitled, "The Grave," whereas Van Dyke is responsible for the actual wording of the aforementioned submissions.
posted by litterateur at 6:45 PM on May 20, 2009

Well, an obvious choice would be something from Emily Dickinson , especially this group of her poems. Maybe, this one, for the aunt?
posted by hellogoodbye at 7:05 PM on May 20, 2009

Perhaps this, from Raymond Carver's A Small Good Thing?

"It was warm inside the bakery. Howard stood up from the table and took off his coat. He helped Ann from her coat. The baker looked at them for a minute and then nodded and got up from the table. He went to the oven and turned off some switches. He found cups and poured coffee from an electric coffee-maker. He put a carton of cream on the table, and a bowl of sugar.

"You probably need to eat something," the baker said. "I hope you'll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this," he said.

He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. "It's good to eat something," he said, watching them. "There's more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There's all the rolls in the world in here."

They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he'd worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn't a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.

"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving."

...The rest of the story is here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:12 PM on May 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and for a modern (which I'm more partial to as well) poem, possibly this one? It's strange and maybe too close to the bone, but the last part is what got me:

Any belief in love itself is what I'd have you want—
Look me in the eye with that sort of love that looks
Through me as if grief were so much tissue paper,
With a love that doesn't stop with me or you, that
Doesn't stop when there's no more world to fear
Because there is no need to wheel the bed outside,
Because a hospital melts like a snowflake, because
The walls and windows and even the bed liquify,
Even the things she's seen that aren't there vanish
Because how much energy there is in emptiness,
Take everything away, there's still something there.

posted by hellogoodbye at 7:13 PM on May 20, 2009

See: In the midst of winter (re literature of mourning) by Jane Moffat. V good.
posted by madstop1 at 7:27 PM on May 20, 2009

I'm not sure how comforting this will be, but it's probably the poem I think about when it comes to the loss of a loved one, by Donald Hall.

Distressed Haiku

In a week or ten days
the snow and ice
will melt from Cemetery Road.

I'm coming! Don't move!

Once again it is April.
Today is the day
we would have been married
twenty-six years.

I finished with April
halfway through March.

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.

Will Hall ever write
lines that do anything
but whine and complain?

In April the blue
mountain revises
from white to green.

The Boston Red Sox win
a hundred straight games.
The mouse rips
the throat of the lion

and the dead return.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:47 PM on May 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

litterateur, you rock! Thanks for clarifying that.
posted by Majorita at 7:54 PM on May 20, 2009

Oh! I can't believe I didn't think of this earlier, especially if you love Donne:

Sonnet X

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

And Sonnet VI:

This is my play's last scene, here heavens appoint
My pilgrimage's last mile; and my race
Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace,
My span's last inch, my minute's latest point,
And gluttonous death, will instantly unjoint
My body and soul, and I shall sleep a space;
But my ever-waking part shall see that face,
Whose fear already shakes my every joint:
Then, as my soul, t' heaven her first seat, takes flight,
And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell,
So fall my sins that all may have their right
(To where they're bred, and would press me) to hell.
Impute me righteous, thus purged of evil,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.

(No problem, Marjorita--it's the scholar in me, I guess ;))
posted by litterateur at 8:03 PM on May 20, 2009

I've always liked this one.
Do not stand at my grave and weep
posted by BoscosMom at 10:25 PM on May 20, 2009

Donne is not comforting in any way...
posted by Raichle at 9:36 AM on May 21, 2009

From Dying, An Introduction, by L.E. Sissman:

[The poet has just learned that he has cancer.]

IV. "Outbound"

Outside, although November by the clock,
Has a thick smell of spring,
And everything--
The low clouds lit
Fluorescent green by city lights;
The molten, hissing stream
Of white car lights, cooling
To red and vanishing;
The leaves,
Still running from last summer, chattering
Across the pocked concrete;
The wind in trees;
The ones and twos,
The twos and threes
Of college girls,
Each shining in the dark,
Each carrying
A book or books,
Each laughing to her friend
At such a night in fall;
The two-and-twos
Of boys and girls who lean
Together in an A and softly walk
Slowly from lamp to lamp,
Alternatively lit
And nighted; Autumn Street,
Astonishingly named, a rivulet
Of asphalt twisting up and back
To some spring out of sight--and everything
Recalls one fall
Twenty-one years ago, when I,
A freshman, opening
A green door just across the river,
Found the source
Of spring in that warm night,
Surprised the force
That sent me on my way
And set me down
Today. Tonight. Through my
Invisible new veil
Of finity, I see
November's world--
Low scud, slick street, three giggling girls--
As, oddly, not as sombre
As December,
But as green
As anything:
As spring.
posted by Iridic at 9:38 AM on May 21, 2009

@Raichle: I would propose that, for a Christian, it might. Again, we do not know these people and were therefore tasked with coming up with suggestions. I know of some people who were comforted by these passages (and are well-pleased with them, myself), so I figured it would be appropriate to at least pass them along.
posted by litterateur at 1:41 PM on May 21, 2009

I had thought of Death Be Not Proud & Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep, & a few more obvious pieces, but they just didn't seem exactly right for my mates & their situations, you know?

Once again, the hivemind has blown me away. I shall spend some time today deciding which piece(s) to use, & will mark the favourite(s) accordingly.

And pat yourselves on the back for giving comfort to 2 wonderful women. Many many thanx for your thoughtful input.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 3:18 PM on May 21, 2009

This is kind of an off-the-wall suggestion, but what if you looked at the excerpt that the New York Times published of Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking and picked out a passage or two for one of your friends? You can find it here.

It's very modern, wonderfully well written, and might appeal in a way that better-known pieces such as the Donne poem may not.
posted by librarylis at 9:31 PM on May 21, 2009

Thanx again for all your input. I have marked as 'best' the ones that are most suitable for these particular friends, but I greatly appreciate every suggestion, and will no doubt use them all at one time or another.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 4:01 PM on May 22, 2009

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