Poetic Healing – Poems of Grief and Healing in the Aftermath of the Humboldt Broncos’ Tragedy

The Art of Losing – Poems of Grief and Healing, edited by American poet Kevin Young


Trying to remember you
is like carrying water
in my hands a long distance
across sand. Somewhere people are waiting.
They have drunk nothing for days.

Your name was the food I lived on;
now my mouth is full of dirt and ash.
To say your name was to be surrounded
by feathers and silk; now, reaching out,
I touch glass and barbed wire.
Your name was the thread connecting my life;
now I am fragments on a tailor’s floor.

I was dancing when I
learned of your death; may
my feet be severed from my body.

Stephen Dobyns from Velocities, Penguin, 1994

This poem by celebrated American poet Stephen Dobyns so captures the first bleak reality of grief. This poem, as only a great poem can do, captures the isness of the thing being written about. In this case the raw, unrelenting isness of grief. There is no amelioration. No comfort. The shock and thunder-clap finality of death and in its aftermath, its terrible companion, grief. The poem’s last line scares the air out of my lungs in its severity: I was dancing when I/ learned of your death, may/ my feet be severed from my body.

I feature this poem and three others for all those struggling with grief. I think of my two children Reed and Alex and the immediate family of my first wife, who attended the funeral of their mother, wife and grandmother, my former mother-in-law, in Collingwood today. But I especially chose this poem and the others that follow in response to the deaths that rocked the Canadian hockey community late this week.

Obviously, the death of fifteen passengers in the Humboldt Broncos Hockey team bus last night is the headline grabber not only in Canada but around the world. But also the death of Jonathon Pitre, the so-called Butterfly Boy, at age 17 from complications from his rare, unrelentingly painful and debilitating skin disease, epidermolysis bullosa, struck hard in the professional hockey, sports and media community after his death on Wednesday. He was called the Butterfly Boy in an award winning documentary because his skin was as fragile as a butterfly’s wing, The slightest bump would rip it open.

Jonathon’s passion for hockey brought him in touch with players from all across the NHL and other professional leagues outside hockey but especially those with the Ottawa Senators. His unbelievable fighting spirit was an inspiration for so many. The grief at his passing was so obvious in the many news clips celebrating his life on Thursday and Friday.

And then the horrific highway accident last night that ended fifteen lives on a winter road in Saskatchewan. And has left others in hospital in Saskatoon.

At times like these I know of nothing more healing than poetry. It can not take the pain of grief away but it can name it, speak the dire enormity of it. And in doing that, I believe, helps begin the journey on the long road of healing. And in my need for solace I went to American poet Kevin Young’s 2010 anthology of poems on grief and healing called the Art of Losing. It was there I found these poems. I so highly recommend this book.

Oh, how the Dobyns’s poem names grief’s reality. Especially in the aftermath of an unexpected death. The extra grief of that. And the poem below does the same. It’s by American poet John Berryman who died far too soon by jumping of a bridge in 1972 in Minnesota..

 To Bhain Campbell


I told a lie once in a verse. I said
I said I said I said “The heart will mend,
Body will break and mend, the foam replace
For even the unconsolable his taken friend.”
This is a lie. I had not been here then.

John Berryman from The Art of Losing, edited by Kevin Young, Bloomsbury USA, 2010

How searing this poem. That it takes away the solace of the heart will mend which in grief’s first stages minimizes it and does not allow the wound of grief to heal uncovered.

I have featured the following poem, News of Death, before in this blog. By well-known poet and inspirational speaker David Whyte, this poem, I think is one of his best and is not as well known as many of his other poems. It captures the shock and grief at an unexpected death. Like Dobyns he uses metaphor so well to create the isness of the  incomprehension and horror from an unexpected death. In response to hearing the news of his friend’s death, these lines say it all: I wanted to say, /the fish float belly up in the slow stream, stepping stones to the dead.”

News Of Death

For Tom Charlotte

Last night they came with news of death
not knowing what I would say.

I wanted to say,
“The green wind is running through the fields
making the grass lie flat.”

I wanted to say,
“The apple blossom flakes like ash,
covering the orchard wall.”

I wanted to say,
“the fish float belly up in the slow stream,
stepping stones to the dead.”

They asked if I would sleep that night,
I said I did not know.

For this loss I could not speak,
the tongue lay idle in a great darkness,
the heart was strangely open,
the moon had gone,
and it was then
when I said, “He is no longer here”
that the night put its arms around me
and all the white stars turned bitter with grief.

David Whyte (1955- ) from River Flow – New and Selected Poems 1984 – 2007, Many Rivers Press, 2007

I saved this poem by British poet Phillip Larkin for last. I did it not because his portrayal of death is not any less unrelenting but because unlike the others it offers instructions for comfort of sorts:The first day after a death, the new absence/ Is always the same; we should be careful/ Of each other, we should be kind/ While there is still time.

The Mower

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Philip Larkin from Collected Poems, Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1988

To look at death and grief in an unflinching way. Ok, I get how that is an important first step. But I do also so appreciate the kindness in Larkin’s words. Words so apt today after the death of so many in a terrible accident.

The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

I offer this blog in deepest sympathy to my first wife’s family, the family of Jonathon Pitre but especially to the loved ones of those who died last night in the accident in Saskatchewan and I pray for bodily and mental healing for all the survivors.


  1. Liz
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    “He is no longer here”
    that the night put its arms around me
    and all the white stars turned bitter with grief.
    Yes, I know this sudden loss of young life all too well.
    I have been teary all day thinking about all those beautiful boys, their coaches and friends.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Oh Liz. I will email you as well. Your dear Ian. You sure do know that day after. And I am so glad you are loved by the Whyte poem. I have to say that poem is on my top ten list! I too very stirred up by these deaths. Thank you for sharing your reaction so beautifully!

  3. Susan Plett
    Posted April 8, 2018 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this, you gentle, genuine, generous man.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted April 8, 2018 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Susan: Thank you. Thank you.

  5. Posted April 8, 2018 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    When a friend’s husband was killed suddenly in a car crash recently, I wondered, is there a poem for that? For solace at such a time and following the other sudden deaths you mentioned. As it turns out, there is. Thank you Richard. Life is fragile. “We should be careful / of each other, we should be kind . . “

  6. Richard Osler
    Posted April 8, 2018 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Always so glad to get a comment from you Mary Ann after a blog post. I am so sorry about your friend’s husband. But I am glad you found comfort in the poems. I was not familiar with this Larkin poem. But those last lines should be pasted in every city square! In Every home.

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