“Death is real; there is no need to say that because our loved one is in heaven, death doesn’t exist.”Rob Moll, The Art Of Dying: Living Fully Into The Life To Come
Today’s Poetry Friday poem was penned in 1932 as the United States shifted away from its Victorian-era fascination with death toward a death-phobic 20th century. Mary Elizabeth Frye wrote this poem to comfort those who mourn, and it became wildly popular in her day. Even though it is scientifically inaccurate and emotionally avoidant, it’s still popular today. It’s easy to understand why. When we stand at the grave of the one we love, we want to believe Mary. We want to believe our loved one isn’t really there, that he or she didn’t die. We want to deny the harsh reality of that cold marble stone in the grass before us.
But pretending our loved one hasn’t died doesn’t help anybody, and swallowing our tears when we long to weep inhibits the healthy grieving process. Our loved ones are not sunlight or diamonds or stars or rain. They are dust. Heartbreaking — there is no other word to describe it. This is the tragic reality of death.
I am convinced that if we are ever to grieve fully, we must stop pretending and turn toward this reality. Rather than push them away, we must welcome our tears and embrace our sorrow with compassion and kindness. In effect, we must read Mary’s poem in reverse.
My children love the concept of reverse psychology. Sometimes, to mix things up, I’ll tell them “Don’t go clean your rooms! Don’t you dare do it!” They laugh and run away to “rebel” and do the thing I precisely told them not to do. I encourage you to read today’s poem as an exercise in reverse psychology. What invitation to grieve opens up when you are able to hear your loved one, through Mary’s words, say, “Do stand at my grave and weep. I am there. I do sleep”? How does the shape of your sorrow change when you are able to acknowledge the finality of death? What would you add to Mary’s words to make them reflect the reality of loss you experience? If you were to reply to the speaker in this poem, what would you say?
Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.