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Children Writing Grief

from The Southern Review


            If it is true, as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, that “Childhood is the kingdom where no one dies that matters,” then for many of my students, the kingdom was vanquished early on. No matter where I traveled in fifteen years as writer-in-residence for a metropolitan school district--from tree-shaded classrooms in affluent neighborhoods to bullet-pocked trailers of the inner city--students wrote of loss.  Sometimes grief broke classroom rules of decorum: once, it broke a window; once, a desk. But for most children, the act of writing seemed to order the chaos, to provide a place to house the raw emotion swirling in their heads and hearts.

         When a poem struck me--by its language, rhythms, its surprising vision or depth of feeling--I asked the author if I could share it with others. No one ever said no. All seemed thrilled that I valued what they said and how they said it, and that I felt their work would be of interest to someone else. Occasionally a student asked that I not use her name: “I want to be that guy with the big A,” one little girl told me. (Many students, I found, were impressed by Anonymous, both his name and his prolific output. They always assumed he was male.)  Some of my students opted for pen names, one boy employing the middle name of his dead brother. For this essay, I’ve chosen to identify the student poets only by first name and grade level, in part because of the personal nature of the work, and in part because this shorthand reminds us of the universality of what is being expressed. Jane could be anyone--my niece, your daughter.

         In fact, there were many Janes; that is, for every example I’ve included, I read many that echoed the sentiment. What emerged from my reading of  hundreds, then thousands, of these poems were not only the facts of singular lives  but also the patterns beneath the facts, the myriad yet universal ways grief weaves its path through the lives of the young. I offer the work of my former students for two reasons: first, as a way of demonstrating how children approach the losses that are thrown their way; second, as poems, or sections of poems, in which children are speaking the truths of their lives, sometimes fluently, sometimes haltingly, but often with astonishing honesty and beauty.

         Dylan Thomas asserted that “After the first death, there is no other,” but my students’ poems suggest that in many cases, a series of small deaths precede the large ones. By deeming these losses “small” I am not suggesting that they are trivial.  I use “small” here only to distinguish these losses from the death of a close family member--a loss that appeared, in most of my students’ poems, to represent the zenith of grief. The “smaller” losses served as rehearsals, if you will. In waving goodbye to a friend, for instance, the children were practicing for the larger grief play. 

Separated

Red car rolling off,
waving your hand
like wiggling rubber.
Fog shadows behind
the car. The engine
sound is fading away.
The sight of the car
floats forward.  Your
shaking hand of
rubber swiftly floats
down.
         Penelope, 5th grade



READ THE ENTIRE ESSAY
Children Writing Grief
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