03/28/2008 02:47 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Poetry Of Loss

My grandmother passed away last week, and my family asked if I would read a poem during the service. While I wanted to do it for them, I didn't want to do it. Nothing I'd written was appropriate, and I wondered if a poem (even a great one) by someone who never knew my grandma could really honor her. Worse, I only had one night to look. But I agreed, wanting to do what I could for my father, who had to plan all the details of a funeral at the height of mourning.

I stayed up late searching the internet for elegies next to the slot machine in my aunt's office. My aunt loves her slots, and somebody had given her a full-sized Japanese model dotted with little red dinosaurs. When she plays, it roars and shakes the house. The absurdity of googling phrases like "poems about death" next to that thing kept me from falling too far into my grief. Some poems I knew well came up: Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!"; Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"; Tennyson's "In Memoriam." Reading them in such a raw and urgent state, they took on a different tone. I read my favorite passage from "In Memoriam"--this painful, solitary moment of doubt:

Behold, we know not anything;

I can but trust that good shall fall

At last--far off--at last, to all,

And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?

An infant crying in the night:

An infant crying for the light:

And with no language but a cry.

This time, it hurt to read. Doubt was the last thing I wanted to think about.

I found Milton's "Lycidas," written to commemorate the death a fellow student at Cambridge. One of my old professors thought "Lycidas" was the greatest elegy ever written. I thought it might be appropriate being a pastoral (having an idealized view of rural life) since my grandmother had spent her life on a farm. Reading it again, it was beautiful and comforting--"Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth."--But Milton never was a farmer, and the poem seemed so far from reflecting my grandmother. I remembered how the professor used to dress in tweed and leave notes for us in Latin. He was of a different world, and the poem wasn't right.

A lot of websites recommended W.H. Auden's "Stop All The Clocks," which you might remember from the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral (not surprisingly, it gets read at the funeral). I love the poem, but it's such a powerful expression of grief that even on a normal day it can lead me to dim the lights and listen to Jeff Buckley:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,

Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,

Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

After I'd read everything on two "recommended elegies" sites without success, I started looking elsewhere. Maybe I couldn't find the perfect poem, but I could find one that grandma would appreciate, something that might help the mourners, or help myself. I decided, finally, on "Let Evening Come" by Jane Kenyon, a woman who wrote a series of strong, beautiful lyrics about death after she was diagnosed with leukemia. It's brave, and it's written in my grandmother's language, rich with the imagery of her life:

Let the light of late afternoon

shine through chinks in the barn, moving

up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.

Let the wind die down. Let the shed

go black inside. Let evening come.

It was a comfort, and it was the best I could do.

It was bright and cold inside the chapel the next morning. I read the poem and it did seem to be a comfort. One by one, my family rose to tell stories about grandma. How when my cousin Connie left for her honeymoon, she noticed something spilling from her suitcase--it turned out grandma had filled it with dried rice and peas. How, at the home, grandma would lift the wheels of the old folks' wheelchairs so they spun in place, devious until the end. We laughed and cried. My cousin Anna, all of nine-years-old, read the essay she'd written about grandma for school, in that stiff endearing way that children read, just loud enough for us to hear. My grandma must have loved it. It was the poem I'd been looking for.