Letters from the Living

In Marie Howe’s poem, “My Dead Friends,” the speaker of the poem admits that when she’s “weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question,” she asks her “dead friends for their opinion.” As a response, “They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling–whatever  leads/to joy, they always answer,//to more life and less worry.” 

Living after a friend has died of breast cancer is hard. I watch as women–fearless and fierce, who did everything right, ate all the right vegetables, and had the best oncologists–die. I become an informed patient, advocate, and protest. I support and collaborate, and yet I mourn the loss of my beloved friends.

“My Dead Friends” appears in Marie Howe’s book What the Living Do: Poems, a collection of poems informed by her brother’s death. In these poems, Howe does not shy away from her grief, but rather, she gazes directly at her brother’s spirit, “speechless:/I am living. I am remembering you” (from “What the Living Do”).

One friend, who had been a mentor and helped me through my early-stage diagnosis, died in 2015. After her death, she lived in my psyche, and I needed to make space for her. Channeling Marie Howe’s honesty and witness, I wanted to honor what it means to be living with “more life and less worry.” So in an effort to process my grief and sadness, I wrote a series of postcard poems all titled “From the Living.” 

The poem-writing process, which began in silence, was a way for me to conjure an image of my friend. Once I saw her, I could hold her in my imagination and write directly to her. I listened to her as she gently instructed me to find joy

Writing as a way to process emotions is a powerful tool. It invites me to hold space for myself, my sadness, and in this case, for the death of my friend. Writing poems simultaneously offers freedom and control. I am able to open up my subconscious and dive into its murkiness. Then, I am able to be in a type of control as I choose the specific word for what/how I’m feeling and shape lines and stanzas.

In 2021, I sent my poem to Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, whose mission is to publish writers “who are looking to creativity as a way to process and express the healing journey.” Their theme that year was The Grief Series, and they accepted my “Letters from the Living” for their Bargaining issue. 

Below are the beautiful and haunting cover of the Bargaining issue; the Editors’ Letter on grief; and my poem, “Letters from the Living” for RC.

In addition to publishing poetry, creative nonfiction, and photography, Snapdragon offers Art & Healing events.

Jacinta V. White, founder of  The Word Project and Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of  Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, is offering these three upcoming writing workshops:

  • Poetry & Ritual: A Path Towards Self Awareness & Awakening: Taken from more than 20 years of work in this field and her own journey using writing as a modality for healing, Jacinta is offering this retreat to gather writers and non-writers virtually for a safe and brave space to explore what’s happening beneath the surface of your wonderings. 
  • Writing & Rage: Taking writings of those on the frontline of change, we will explore the power of rage to create art and create change.

And mark your calendars for Sunday, September 18 from 1:00 -2:30 pm EST for my workshop Transforming Medical Reports into Poetry. ​​This will be a 90-minute poetry workshop that will invite you to reclaim the disembodied language of a medical report, embody it, and utilize that language in a poem.

More details later in the summer!

3 responses to “Letters from the Living”

  1. Jenny, Section 4 made me cry. It made me think of Maureen and her experience living with breast cancer. And dying of it.

    I love this blog and your efforts to use all your gifts to help women like yourself. In the process you have helped so many others.



  2. Gorgeous poem!


    1. Thanks, Jane! I hope you’re doing well.


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