Danna D. Schmidt
Master Life-Cycle Celebrant®
Ordained Wedding Officiant
Master Life-Cycle Celebrant®
Ordained Wedding Officiant
Writing Poems for the Dead
I’ve heard that the dead gather to watch and listen
when we write about them, and even if they
want to be remembered in our small bodies of words,
all too often the poems are a tight fit, clumsy
and shapeless as air. We have to be careful
writing poems for the dead. We have to take them
seriously, do more than acknowledge their presence
in words. As our severest critics, they want to keep us
honest, end our clichés and sentimental claptrap.
~ ~ ~
Perhaps they prefer that we stammer a little,
go deeper into silence, weep before we write.
Maybe they want us to drum out anger, punch pillows,
take long slow walks and invite them to come along.
Above all, I think they want us to see them as singular,
not confined to poems, preserved in category.
~ ~ ~
Unless we learn to grieve, unless each morning we
get out of bed ready to be surprised and breathing thanks
not knowing to what or to whom, unless the first drink of water
is a sacrament and putting one foot in front of the other
an extraordinary blessing we may not be able to speak
for them, let alone for ourselves.
~ ~ ~
If the dead enter my poems, I need to remember
my mother wasn’t at all sure she liked a poem
I wrote for her in love and good faith,
remember Phil said he didn’t want poems
written for him. Maybe the dead don’t care
for eulogies, our presumptuous descriptions
of lives we think they lived. Mostly I’m glad
if they come, and I welcome their feedback.”
~ Jeanne Lohmann ~
Today marks three years since the day our nephew Collin was found lifeless on his couch in what otherwise might have been the slumbering pose of a 20-something night owl who spent many a night crashed on his sofa. They say it was heart-related. So, too, is the grief that we, the next of kin, inherit and then carry for a lifetime.
And so is it that each year on this anniversary day of his death, I seek comfort in a few rituals of remembrance.
One of the first things I do each January 30th now is to scroll through my Facebook Messenger string with him, which is an eclectic chat spanning some three years that meanders from his cherished memories of his younger sister who had predeceased him by a few years, to his love of blacksmithing and dream of one day becoming a tanto knife forger and gunsmith, to his liberal thoughts on marijuana and tobacco, to his recent interest in Raja Yoga, to his personal take on horrorcore rap music. It was a sublime record of any given conversation with Collin. You just never knew which direction it would take.
I’ve been writing my own clumsy poems for Collin in my mind a lot lately. He was the long-winded monologist in the family, renowned for his conspiracy theories and apocalyptic chatter. He used to refer to former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper as an evil alien cyborg, which was a description that made me spit out my coffee in amusement when he first shared it. “How can nature be illegal?!” was his indignant and rhetorical question to an otherwise lengthy and self-answering rant about pot and government regulation that particular day.
To look for him in words is to recall one of his favorite words: munkie. He defined it as equal parts wildcard/filler word, term of endearment, and synonym for all the clowns of the world. I can only imagine what he would have had to say about Mr. 45 and the three-ring circus of munkiez temporarily running the show in DC to the shock, horror and non-amusement of the masses.
Yet as much as I look for Collin in words and punctuation, I recognize how he has “gone into the pauses of our conversation / the time beyond time and time within time,” as the poet Vicky Lettmann describes in her grief poem, “Between the Words.”
It’s a small thing, but as an act of re(member)ance, re-reading his words proves powerful. His voice, his sarcasm, his laughter, and his indelible spark all come alive for me again in this seemingly simple yet poignant ritual.
Every year on this anniversary of his death, I also brave a watch/listen to the photo tribute I made for his memorial, as I pair my ugly cry to the grief-triggering Coldplay lyrics of “lights will guide you home and ignite your bones” and later, “tears stream down your face when you lose something you can’t replace.” It’s a cathartic and exhausting grief ritual, hence the brave part.
Crafting this photo tribute, in which all the images are out of focus (a metaphor for navigating grief and loss of a loved one if ever there was one) obviously necessitated syncing the music timings to befit the slide transitions. Having never attempted this before, I should confess that the amount of times I listened to Coldplay’s “Fix You” and “The Scientist” in order to get the tribute flow just right equates to about 16 million tears shed over the course of that week not to mention 7.5 million song repeats, circa those early days of February 2014.
The lament is never in the work – such tribute work is actually what helps shape and soften the loss. I believe in the healing power of tribute crafting and labors of love to help us sink into grief in those early days after a death. To be continued. And yet, even as I shed enough tears in those weeks I spent crafting his heart charm funeral tokens, eulogy, and photo tribute to fill a small infinity pool in my backyard, there is always a torrent more tears at the ready the nanosecond I dare click play again on this tribute.
And this is why I have begun cautioning the families I work with in my end-of-life and celebrancy work to carefully consider the songs they choose for these types of tributes, as they will likely need to “retire” those songs from their regular playlists thereafter. For just as Collin must surely have been rolling over in his grave at the thought of the “sentimental claptrap” of Coldplay we played at his memorial service, “Fix You” and “The Scientist” have forever become his songs now. Sorry, not sorry, Collin. 🙂
I also warn families about preparing to be assaulted unaware in the produce section when that certain song or songs they chose should happen to suddenly stream over the grocery store airwaves, just at that moment when they are about to reach for that perfect peach. There’s a pun in there about grief being the pits but I won’t go there because it’s not so much that grief is the pits as that it drops us there: to the bottommost, innermost depth and pits of our being.
If, upon exit, we get to have a choice about our next life ontology, I am most certain Collin would have made a beeline to the door marked “Reincarnate as a Bright, Shiny Star!”
I said as much in my eulogy words, as I wove in several alchemical references to fire, blacksmithing, God’s hearth room, Collin’s fierce love, and of course, the celestial realm. These were my closing words of tribute:
If I had to choose how Collin lived liveliest for me, it would be that magic stardust glimmer in his eyes. This divine spark and sparkle lives on in every photo of him at every age and stage. His mischievous, ever-smiling eyes always seemed to hint that he was either up to something, knew something you didn’t, or was just plain looking to mess with you for the sheer fun of it.”
My words of committal that followed those wistful words were some of the hardest words I have uttered. As I was writing them, I was imagining the release of love and fireball of energy that was Collin making his metaphysical way to some place way shinier.
It is with heavy yet grateful hearts that we do the sacred work of releasing the sparkle and spirit of Collin onward to his new home. I like what legendary rocker Lou Reed’s widow had to say recently about this inevitable business of death and release. She defines death as the release of love. This notion begs the provocative question offered by the poet Raymond Carver in his poem “Late Fragment,”in which he asks: “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.” Collin, may you know peace, and how forever beloved you were and remain to those of us you leave behind. This is the boundless, encircled love that your Mom used to hint at when she would gesture to you her special term of endearment and promissory note of “all the way around the world and back again, I love you.” In this spirit of eternal belovedness, and on behalf of all whose hearts cohered with yours on this planet, Collin, we bid you farewell. Until we meet again, I will see you at home in the stars.”
And thus I conceived of a holiday ritual of remembrance that next Christmas of either crafting or buying star ornaments each year for my in-laws in order to commemorate his unique beingness, and as pair to the angel ornaments we gift to them in honor and memory of his younger sister, who died by suicide in May of 2009.
Variations of these and 80 other meaningful ritual ideas are listed in a book called Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive by Allison Gilbert. These myriad ways of commemorating our dearly departed are all just other ways and means of writing poems for the dead. Even as these rituals often echo with the sound of silence thereafter, they do bring me solace. And as praise poet Jeanne Lohmann reminds us above, I remain thankful for the “extraordinary blessing” of attempting to speak for and of them in any way I humanly can.
Sappy and sentimental? Yes, perhaps. But ritual is still the most honest form of elegiac poetry I know.