Poetry Writing Through Grief

Writing poetry can be a therapeutic activity to express your emotions and remember your loved one. In this article, Cruse Scotland volunteer, Lilian McDade shares some of her own poetry and explains how it has helped her during times of grief.

April 05, 2021

We humans are creative beings and always have been – from Stone Age people who painted the outlines of animals they hunted on the walls of their cave dwellings, to the ancient Egyptians who decorated every surface of their tombs and temples with beautiful depictions of their daily lives, not forgetting the Celts in our own homeland of Scotland who created beautiful jewellery and artifacts. When you think of it, we express our natural creativity in various ways, whether it is through decorating our homes, baking cakes, or even the fact that our subconscious mind – or ‘dream psyche’ – creates dreams while we are sleeping!

Poetry as therapy

Art therapy is a well-known method used in healing the mind but, of course, writing is also a creative art and can be a useful part of the healing process following bereavement and loss of a relationship. I started writing poetry while I was in a very troubled relationship many years ago – my emotions were running high and I found myself expressing my hurt and what had happened in spurts of writing poetry over the next few years. It was as if my feelings were tumbling out onto the page and that helped me to unload the pain from my system, to help me heal from the hurt.

By 2000, I had got my life back on track. But then, in 2002, my younger son Daniel, a healthy and handsome, fit young man, was suddenly laid low by an unknown virus and died six days later aged just 21. I was devastated and it took several years before I could feel life growing around the terrible wound I now carried.

Again, in my heightened emotional state, I found myself jotting down ideas and phrases that had come to me in the night which then became part of the poems I wrote following Daniel’s death. I did not set out deliberately to write poetry and my poems do not obviously rhyme but do often have little bits of rhyme hidden within lines. The poet, Robert Graves, once said that ‘organic’ poetry is not the poetry that we sit down and intentionally write but, rather, the inspiration that just comes into the mind and feels as though it just has to be written down. Many artists have had troubled lives and have found that emotional states often give rise to creative impulses.

I find it very healing and cathartic to pour out my grief (and other emotions) into poetry and I am not saying that this is for everyone, but everyone can give it a try. As I said, ideas sometimes came to me during the night and a good practice to encourage this is to ask for inspiration during your sleep – before I go to sleep, I ask my dream psyche to help me if I want to write a particular piece of writing. You may well be amazed to find words and lines coming to you in the night or just as you are waking up, but you need to keep a pen and paper beside your bed to capture these as they often fade away by the time you get out of bed to search for writing equipment! I got a lot of the inspiration for writing this blog using this technique!

A tool for remembrance

I often write what I call narrative poetry, a kind of short-form journaling as it takes less time to record an incident in poetry than in prose. I write down memories of events in short lines with only relevant detail – this captures that time forever and is helpful as you think back to happy memories of times spent with your loved one. For example, I wrote a poem about a bike ride with Daniel:

“One beautiful night in September of ‘93

Daniel and me decided

To go for a bike ride along the canal bank

As far as The Stables (a pub overlooking the water

Just three or four miles from our house.)

We thought of how nice it would be

And it was as we sat in the sunset

And drank our cold drinks

And enjoyed our just-being-together………”

You can see that there is not much rhyming there but there is a rhythm that carries you along which, to me, seemed a bit like the bike wheels turning! Now, years later, that precious time spent with my son comes back in a rush whenever I read this poem which ends with us having to ride furiously home through thunder, lightning and rain!

When writing, you don’t need to be too fussy about grammar or even spelling – you can see it should have been “Daniel and I” in line 2 but I put “Daniel and me” as ‘me’ rhymed with ’93! That’s called ‘poetic licence’! We are much more likely to look back at and read a poem than to read a long prose account of a memory, so poetry is great for that – it ‘paints a picture’ of a memory or event.

A poem I wrote recently began with my thoughts at one particularly sad moment and I do think poetry has to come from the heart:

“I remember many Daniels

I grieve not just for one person

But for the many that he was

And would have been………”

In other poems I do use rhyme because it can be quite satisfying and comforting as it is in children’s rhymes. In the next example, you can see how I used lots of rhyming words:

“The far too many memories are leaving me behind,

stranded in the shadows of a torn and troubled mind.

I am stamped with sorrow, dreading each tomorrow…..”

It can be helpful to write lists of words and phrases that you might want to use when constructing a poem and you can choose to use simple, everyday words, as I generally do, but you can even use a thesaurus if you want to explore a more complex variety of language.

It doesn't matter how 'good' it is

All in all, I believe that we can all write poetry and no-one should judge whether it is ‘good’ or not as the main purpose is to express ourselves in our own way, and to 'write' out our feelings and grief into concrete words, making sad events ‘real’ and this can certainly help to enable healing and acceptance of the death of a loved one.


If you are interested in reading about other creative activities to help you cope with a bereavement, check out our blogs on keeping a journal or writing letters.

Poetry Writing Through Grief

About the Author

Lilian McDade - Cruse Scotland Volunteer

Lilian is a Person Centred Counsellor/Therapist who completed her Post Graduate Diploma in Counselling in 2002. She had previously counselled with Cruse in the 1990's and later at the Tom Allan Centre and the Marie Curie Hospice, returning to Cruse in 2017.

In 2002, Lilian's son Daniel suddenly died, aged 21, from a virus and through that loss and the aftermath, she decided that she wanted to concentrate on Bereavement Counselling. Lilian has always been interested in the 'mysteries' of life and death and wrote her dissertation at University (in her 40's) on "Western Attitudes to death" - being aware that, in our Scottish culture, the rituals of grieving have been lost with the general decline in religion, leaving many bereaved people trying to deal with a loved one's death without the background support and comfort of a belief system. Having been through the devastation of the loss of a child, Lilian believes that she can understand and support those who are in the throes of finding their way through grief.