Shortly after my son Seth’s death eight years ago, I discovered a gift he gave me. It was the gift of poetry.
I don’t mean that I found a poem Seth had written or learned that poetry was an interest of his previously unknown to me. No, I mean that shortly after his death I began doing something I had never done before: writing poems.
Initially, I didn’t recognize this for the gift that it was. The shock of his death made it impossible for me to see anything beyond the pain and grief.
My first poem, consisting of four lines and 17 words, was a lament for my faith, full of questions about the relevance of years of prayer for my three sons and their future which now seemed so vulnerable and uncertain to me.
My second, written three months after our loss, was surprisingly accepting of Seth’s death and more hopeful about how his memory would live on. Taking the form of a haiku, I still did not think of what I was writing as poetry, though I could see how the words I wrote spoke honestly to the truth of my grief in bits and pieces, how the empty spaces between the lines so powerfully expressed the sorrow and pain I felt.
Then Juan Felipe Herrera spoke at Fresno Pacific University about his journey from son of a migrant farm worker to poet laureate of the United States. Felipe Herrera began his presentation with these words: “Don’t think that poems are not poems,” he said. “That’s not what we do. Just write it and read it and share it with one other person.”
With these words, my heart opened to this unexpected gift and I immediately began writing more frequently, all too often in the middle of the night awakened by a dream or thought of my son, pen in hand scribbling through tears.
Eventually, I began to wonder if this was more than just personal grief work for myself. I asked my friend Jean Janzen, an accomplished and celebrated Fresno poet who is generous with her time in retirement and a kind soul who had known Seth through our involvement at church, if she would look at what I had written. Jean graciously read my rough poems and offered to help me with them for including in a grief memoir I had begun.
Patient and wise, Jean has critically yet gently helped me to find truth and beauty in this unexpected gift. On occasion my poems have helped us to see how similar her grief journey was to mine in losing a dear husband and, tragically, a grandson in the time since Seth’s death.
As we drank tea and looked out upon the garden through her kitchen window where we regularly met, marveling at the latest transformation of flowers and other plants, Jean and I have walked together through the pain and comfort of shared grief one poem at a time.
But how to understand this gift? And what of my reluctance to recognize it?
In the first days following Seth’s death, a close friend wrote, “The only conclusion one can come to about the loss of a child is that it is an awful way to learn so little.” To me, this gift is not part of some lesson or moral about what’s to be gained or learned from the death of a child. I have no interest in that.
Nor is it some kind of sign that I’ve arrived at a final destination on my journey of grief or a “reason” for my loss, as some might suggest. No gift of any kind can make such a tragedy worthwhile, or even better, really.
But I have come to see Seth at the heart of this gift and I have learned a thing or two about poetry, and myself, through it.
One day, my friend Jean told me that all poetry is about just two things — love and loss. “Well,” I told her, “that is good, because that is all I know.”
Lawrence Dunn is professor of peacemaking and conflict studies at Fresno Pacific University, the author of “Discovering Forgiveness: Pathways Through Injury, Apology, and Healing,” and is working on a grief memoir of poetry.