A Poem about the “severe gift” of Grief

I’ve been reading a lot of the poetry of Wendell Berry lately, and this excerpt from his poem “Rising” came to mind this morning as I thought of all those we have lost through war and other tragedies. Although the poem speaks of the burdens we carry in our hearts over loved ones lost, it also speaks of a “severe gift” that calls us to honor the dead by being true to ourselves and by courageously living in the light of what we learn from our losses.

This poem is probably not for everyone.  Each person deals with loss and grief differently.  The healing of grief takes time.  It can’t be forced or “magically” fixed.  If we deny it or try to bury our grief, it will eventually demand that we honor it with our attention.  As painful as it is, grief has something to tell us that we have to learn, and for each of us, that lesson is different.  So, there are times to look at our grief square in the face, and there are times to quietly mourn and just be there with our hearts

This poem is about dealing with our grief and honoring it and what it tells us about those lost loved ones—the “severe gift.”  I found the poem challenging, comforting, and strengthening and offer this poet’s gift heart-to-heart, to those who are ready to hear it’s message.

Excerpt from Wendell Berry’s “Rising”

Any man’s death could end the story:
his mourners having accompanied him
to the grave through all he knew,
turn back, leaving him complete.

But this is not the story of life.
It is the story of lives, knit together,
overlapping in succession, rising
again from grave after grave.

For those who depart from it, bearing it
in their minds, the grave is a beginning.
It has weighted the earth with sudden
new gravity, the enrichment of pain.

There is a grave, too, in each
survivor. By it, the dead one lives.
He enters us, a broken blade,
sharp, clear as a lens or mirror.

And he comes into us helpless, tender
as the newborn enter the world. Great
is the burden of our care. We must be true
to ourselves. How else will he know us?

Like a wound, grief receives him.
Like graves, we heal over, and yet keep
as part of ourselves the severe gift.
By grief, more inward than darkness,

the dead become the intelligences of life.
Where the tree falls, the forest rises
There is nowhere to stand but in absence,
no life but in the fateful light.

From The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982

Related Posts:

There’s More to Death Than Dying

“It is understandable that those who do not believe there is any reality deeper than this life, and the death that ends it, do not want to dwell on the fact of death. But if you suspect there is a way to awaken to a deeper, timeless reality that lies beyond birth and death, there is nothing more compelling than reflection on death. Inspiration and joy can be found in doing so, since it turns one’s thoughts away from attachment to what is unreal, and leads one in the other direction of what is ultimately real and of lasting value… ~ “Lama Shenpen Hookham

Thich Nhat Hanh—No Death, No Fear (audio)

“Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing. We believe we are born from nothing and that when we die we become nothing. And so we are filled with fear of annihilation. The Buddha has a very different understanding, that birth and death are notions. They are not real.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Some Helpful Buddhist Meditations on Death (audio)

“Of all the challenges we face as humans, none is more difficult than death. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the death of thousands in some natural disaster, or the fear of our own eventual demise, death is the terrible problem that won’t go away. Nothing causes more suffering….”

The Fear and Wonder of Being Open to the Unknown

“This returning to the Source, or realizing the Deathless, is the sense of coming to know the source of our life, the origin of our life. Because it is the very fabric of our life, the basis of our existence, it is something that has been exerting a power of attraction on us all through our life, the attraction of Truth, of the Real, the completely satisfying, the completely safe…” Ajahn Amaro

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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

4 Responses to “A Poem about the “severe gift” of Grief”

  1. a beautiful offering to us all, dying as we are, dying among the dying ones, an enactment of opening the heart of all that is, whom we all have wounded again and again; each of us in loving grief when we open the heart becomes a portal of light on human darkness, a voice in a choir, a stream of healing. Owning one’s own humanity, we become one with the grief of all, the cruelty of all, the selfishness and the indifference. Becoming one with all is to own the wounding, to feel the wound , and to be the wounds of all.

    “Like graves, we heal over, and yet keep
    as part of ourselves the severe gift.
    By grief, more inward than darkness,
    the dead become the intelligences of life.”

    Thank you, Steven

    • Gosh, thank you George! I am so moved and edified by your comment. Your deep empathy for and resonance with what the poem says throws new light on what’s there, which is no small thing for a poem this profound.

      I think your compassionate extension of Berry’s insight is essential too, as when you say: “Owning one’s own humanity, we become one with the grief of all, the cruelty of all, the selfishness and the indifference. Becoming one with all is to own the wounding, to feel the wound, and to be the wounds of all.”

      I’ve seen this for myself, to some degree, and it’s very moving and humbling to feel this shared humanity. For me, your words takes the poem to a new place, and I want to quietly ponder the implications of this further unfolding of meaning.

      Thank you for being able to share what you saw with me and others; your comment will be a great gift to anyone who now visits this post.

      With warm regards,
      Steve

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Buddha’s Teaching When a Beloved Disciple Passed Away | 巴利語翻譯 - 2015/12/04

    […] A Poem about the “severe gift” of Grief […]

  2. The Buddha’s Teaching When a Beloved Disciple Passed Away | Metta Refuge - 2012/01/23

    […] A Poem about the “severe gift” of Grief […]

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