Spontaneous Eulogies: Poetry of Praise as a Natural Vessel for Grieving


This fall has been a particularly sad time to serve as a poet in the schools. As a teaching artist at Drachman Montessori and Manzo Elementary Schools, I had some doubts about the value of sharing poetry that was directly about war, given that I imagined children were already being exposed to a larger than usual amount of violence in their world.

However, I was struck that students were innately able to understand that poetry was a conduit that could channel their own experiences of violence and loss. Without my directly inviting it, multiple students in my two elementary residencies spontaneously shared stories about loss and death that had befallen them and their families in their lives and created poetry as an outpouring of their grief and love.

Here's a poem from third grader Quetzalli at Drachman Montessori K-8:

I love my dad

I love my dad. He also makes me so happy. He also makes a waffle for me and pancakes for us, for me and my sister. He also made me laugh. I love him so much even though he passed away. I love him so much and will always love him. When I was a little girl, I stand on his hand, I fall but he got me. And it was a long drive when we went to Mexico.

When Quetzalli first shared that her father had passed away, it was in the midst of a lesson where students were invited to speak their appreciation for loved ones. In such moments when students unexpectedly discuss something vulnerable, I'm often unsure how to respond in a way that honors that student's experience as fully as I imagine is needed for healing. I'm usually greatly humbled at what feels like my largely ineffectual though heartfully spoken "thank you for sharing," before inevitably moving on to the next person's eager contribution to storytelling.  

It happened again at Manzo Elementary on the last day of my residency. I'd already had a habit of attempting to capture students' oral sharing on a recording device, which sometimes translates well into written poems. On this occasion, when students were coming up to the front of the class to read poems they had already written, one girl wanted to share a poem that she had composed in her head but which I hadn't seen yet on paper. So, I whipped out my voice recorder and asked her to speak into it so I could transcribe it later. Then, two more students asked to come up, and instead of reading poems they'd already written, each one wanted to share a poem they were composing on the spot.

This was Harith's voice-dictated poem:

Dear Cousin, Dear Brother, Dear Tio

Dear brother, I missed you so much
I missed you so much that I missed my cousin
Because he died with my tio because people shot him with guns
I missed you so much because my cousin died and it was for my mom
Because my brother died too because they were fighting
And my little brother went and followed them
And he died with my tio and my cousin

Again, all I could manage to say was, "Thank you so much for sharing, Harith.  I'm so sorry that happened."

And right behind him, Isabella shared her own oral composition of gratitude and sadness, not about a death but no less a loss: the fact that her father is not in town all the time, due to him serving in the military.

Here is Isabella's oral poem:

Thank You to My Dad

Oh Dad, Oh Dad, I wish you never went to train
I wish you could have stayed, but it helps our world to grow
Thank you for helping our Earth by training and more
I love you so much, I will see you in two months
I love you

A few weeks before the last class, she had written this poem as well:

You are who I love, Brian!

Brian, te amo mucho con
todo mi corazón. I will
do anything for you
to come back to earth!! Te
amo mucho mucho. I
love you so, so much.
I miss you.
You were so smart.
You were handsome.
I love you
so much.

At first, I was a little surprised that students were willing to share on these sensitive and deeply sad topics during lessons where I had not explicitly invited discussions of death and loss. I wondered what conditions allowed this to happen. Again, I hadn't specifically asked them to share about loss or death.

But now, I recall what Martín Prechtel illuminates about the deep connection between praise and grief in his book The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise: that when we have one, we'll inevitably have the other. Praise comes from grief. Grief engenders praise.  

Since I had invited love, it flowed in naturally along the riverbanks of grief.

Those rivers have been flowing in abundance for the collective as well. For those of us who have opened our hearts to feel our own grief about what we've witnessed happening in the Middle East this fall, we've also been loving countless unknown faces through our cell phone screens: loving and honoring and praising their bravery, endurance, and resilience, despite the brutality and annihilation they’ve been subjected to.

Grief and praise are woven. Young poets instinctively know this.

While I still question my uncertainty about whether and how to address global liberation movements, as well as the plight of oppressed and impoverished people, in a direct way with youngsters, I now have more trust that one of the legitimate pathways to opening up a capacity for resiliency in the face of deep suffering is to lean into the doorway of praise, honoring, and celebrating what we love. Those who are ready to push through the channel of the grief they have experienced in their own lives will know their own way. That gentle invitation to open our throats to spontaneous love and praise may be vessel enough to waken the tender yet brutal curriculum of grief that inevitably awaits us all.

Taylor Johnson was born in Washington, DC, raised in Western Maryland, and transplanted to the Sonoran Desert since 2002. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Poetry from the University of Arizona in 2007, and then went on to teach English to high schoolers for the next 15 years.  In May 2022, she stepped away from full-time teaching to pursue a solopreneur venture as a nightly dreamworker and freelance educator.  She began her career as a visiting poet in 2005 when she was still a young mom, wearing her infant in a rainbow sling while teaching poetry lessons to young elementary students through a Poetry Center residency, and then later as a graduate student working with high school students at Cholla and Desert View.  Currently, she is focused on writing down her dreams and sorting through way too many old journals, mining for hidden gems. Website: symbodythedream.com.

Photo by Eduardo Goody.