A Profound Loss

Advice and insight from a professional poet.


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My friend’s son just died. He was only 10 years old. It happened so suddenly that my friend can barely understand her grief or how to cope with it. I want to help her, but I don’t know how. Sadly, I don’t think words can help in this situation.
— Kay


Maybe some time needs to pass, but I think one day you’ll see that words can console in even the saddest situations. Right now, for your friend especially, the world is simply too cruel — it can’t possibly offer anything redemptive. And she’s right: The world is not just, and she should grieve. She should not be scouring books of poetry for something that will help her cope, and neither should you, not right now. What you can do as a friend is give her space to grieve. Help her with housework, because now is not the time for cleaning the bathroom or making hot meals. And maybe later down the line, you’ll come across a poem or a book of poems that could help make sense of her loss.

“Curtains of Emptiness”

This is what he couldn’t see—
The sea path, rocks smashed past vertical
From some previous TNT force.
He was done for. He was over.

Yet her mind ticked
With his still presence. How does one live
With sorrow? His hand on her shoulder
Saying, your love

Of precision will only get you in trouble.
Your sense of lack will too.
She dreamed him alive and ill.
Pietà-like. She dreamed him

At every age. Ten and less. Fourteen and taller.
The tick ticking back and forward like the sea
Crashing against the wet black rock
Of clarity and circumstance.

The skating scene seen again
And again, against the replay of a fever at four,
The day in May when he was in withdrawal
And a doctor said almost and dead.

Words from where
They watched while he ate white ice cream
With a wooden spoon. He said, My
Doesn’t this taste good?

Leading everyone to believe he meant to live
Forever. Now she was sickened
By the essence of recollection.

This is from Mary Jo Bang’s book, Elegy, which was written the year following the death of her son. Best wishes, Kay. Please tell your friend that I’m thinking of her and her son. • 4 October 2010