Grief and Kindness

Reading poetry is one of the ways some of us nourish our faith, a way we set or reset our inner compass and stay focused on the big picture, on the spiritual journey. I know that is true for me. ‘Setting the Inner Compass’, is a column where I share poems that I find meaningful and hope others do as well.

April is national poetry month. I want to begin with three thoughtful quotes that celebrate the power of poetry. The first is by a poet you may not be familiar with: Imtiaz Dharker, a Pakistan-born British poet, who won the Queen’s Gold Medal for her English poetry and was appointed Chancellor of Newcastle University from January 2020. The second is by William Carlos Williams from his poem, “Asphodel That Greeny Flower.” The third is by the poet some of us call Saint Mary, Mary Oliver.

‘Poetry reminds us we are human. The more reminders we have of that, the better’

Imtiaz Dharker

“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably
every day
for lack
of what is found there.”

William Carlos Williams

“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

Mary Oliver

My two poems this month are about grief and kindness. The first by Patricia Mckernon is about grief and is both beautiful and wise. The poem speaks to anyone who enters that tender vulnerable space of a person who is grieving. I am so grateful she gave me the privilege to share it with you.

I am also grateful to the publisher of Naomi Shihab Nye’s powerful poem, “Kindness”. The center section of her poem is about the hard realities, the “sorrow” we must honesty grapple with if we are to get to a place of authentic hope, and kindness. This poem reminds me of the line in David Budbill’s poem, “Summers Here”: “If you begrudge yourself some pain, you’ll miss ten thousand peaks.”
My hope is that you will be touched by these poems as much as I have been. It is a difficult time in our world and nation. Poetry speaks to us in a unique way. In the words of Imtiaz Dharker, “Poetry is a reminder that we are human”, with all the potential and joy alongside sorrow and limitation that comes with our humanity.




“When You Meet Someone Deep in Grief” by Patricia McKernon Runkle

Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.

Enter barefoot
this darkened chapel

hollowed by loss
hallowed by sorrow

its grey stone walls
and floor.

You, congregation
of one

are here to listen
not to sing.

Kneel in the back pew.
Make no sound,

let the candles

“KINDNESS” by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.


“When You Meet someone Deep In Grief,” by Patricia McKernon Runkle, is from her book, Grief’s Compass: Walking the Wilderness with Emily Dickerson ( Apprentice House Press:2017) and reprinted with the permission of the poet.

“Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye is from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, copyright © 1996. Used with permission of Far Corner Books.

Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, creator/host of Blues Vespers, one of the PNW Interfaith Amigos and former pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA. He serves on the PCUSA Education Roundtable. ([email protected]). His most recent poetry collection is, I Don’t Usually but…

PS: The poet laureate of the United Kingdom, Simon Armitage, wrote a powerful poem about the war in Ukraine entitled “RESISTANCE”. They did not grant permission to print the poem on this column but did say I could provide a link to the poem which is on his website: click here.

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