15 Mary Oliver Poems About Death, Grief & Loss


One critic wrote that Mary Oliver was as “visionary as Emerson.” Like Emerson, Oliver was known for writing about the “quiet occurrences” of nature, such as the “lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes.” 

The author’s experiences in nature began during her childhood when she would find respite from troubles in the home by visiting nearby woods. There, she would use twigs and branches as her playthings as she wrote. 

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Even though Oliver studied at two colleges, she didn’t earn a degree. Instead, the young poet spent a great deal of time in the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, helping Millay’s sister organize the deceased poet’s papers.

Oliver’s early work focused on nature and an awareness of the world. However, her later work is said to be more personal in nature.

Poetry critic Richard Tillinghast wrote the following about Oliver’s work: “(Oliver) floats above and around the schools and controversies of contemporary American poetry. Her familiarity with the natural world has an uncomplicated, nineteenth-century feeling.” 

Oliver’s poetry received many accolades, such as the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and a Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement. In addition, the poet received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She also won the American Academy of Arts & Letters Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Prize, and the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award.

Oliver died in 2019 at the age of 83. 

We would like to scratch the surface of Oliver’s poetry. We will see what the poet had to say about death and dying, but we will also share what Oliver had to say about life and living. Many of her pieces would be an appropriate choice as a funeral poem

Mary Oliver Poems About Death and Dying

Mary Oliver Poems About Death and Dying

Oliver did not shy away from the topic of death. In fact, many of her poems have been distilled and included on lists of quotes about death. So even though we, too, will include short snippets from her poems in this article, we encourage you to read the pieces in their entirety.

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1. “When Death Comes”

The speaker surmises what will happen “When Death Comes.” While the poem reflects on the moment of death, the end of the piece is about how to live.

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. 

“When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

"Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Mary Oliver Poems About Grief or Sorrow

While many of Oliver’s poems are about the life and death of self, she also wrote about the grief that follows the death of another. Here are some Oliver poems about grief.

2. “After Her Death”

This poem begins,

“I am trying to find the lesson
for tomorrow. Matthew something.
Which lectionary? I have not
forgotten the Way, but, a little,
the way to the Way. The trees keep whispering
peace, peace, and the birds
in the shallows are full of the
bodies of small fish and are
content. They open their wings
so easily, and fly. It is still

Oliver lost her long-time partner in 2005. 

3. “Heavy”

The speaker in this poem writes about how her laughter “was nowhere to be found” after the death of a loved one. A friend named Daniel advised, 

“It’s not the weight you carry
But how you carry it –
Books, bricks, grief –
It’s all in the way
You embrace it, balance it, carry it,
When you cannot, and would not, 
Put it down.”

After this advice, the speaker (Oliver?) is startled by the sounds of laughter coming from her mouth. She also lingers to admire the things of the world again.

4. “In Blackwater Woods” 

“In Blackwater Woods,” concludes with the following lines:

“To live in this world 
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.”

5. “Ice” 

In “Ice,” the speaker tells the story of how her father spent his last winter making ice-grips for shoes. After he passed, the speaker’s mother mentions cleaning out her husband’s workshop and finding “cartons and suitcases stuffed full” of ice grips. 

The final couplet says:

“And I write back: Mother, please
Save everything.”

Although there could be a deeper meaning to this poem, especially since the poet herself had a troubled childhood, this piece may speak to someone who is in the process of cleaning out a loved one’s home.

6. “The Uses of Sorrow”

The full text of this poem reads:

“Someone I loved once
gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that
this, too, was a gift.”

This may not be a poem to share immediately after a person’s death. However, after time, the message might be appreciated.

7. “At the River Clarion”

Many big themes are addressed in “At the River Clarion,” including this stanza that speaks of grief:

“There was someone I loved who grew old and ill
One by one I watched the fires go out.
There was nothing I could do
except to remember
that we receive
then we give back.”

Mary Oliver Poems About Living Life

Mary Oliver Poems About Living Life

As much as we love Oliver’s poems about grief and loss, we appreciate the poet’s instructions and advice on living life. Here are some of her best pieces.

8. “Wild Geese”

This poem offers assurance to a despaired reader. The last lines read,

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.”

9. “Sleeping in the Forest”

We aren’t sure whether this poem is about life or death. In it, the speaker describes spending the night in the perfection of nature. It begins:

“I thought the earth
remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.”

After a night of sleeping “as never before,” the speaker acknowledges:

“By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.”

10. “Ocean”

Mary Oliver writes a love letter to the ocean in this piece. The poem concludes:

“In the personal life, there is
always grief more than enough,
a heart-load for each of us
on the dusty road. I suppose
there is a reason for this, so I will be
patient, acquiescent. But I will live
nowhere except here, by Ocean, trusting
equally in all the blast and welcome
of her sorrowless, salt self.”

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11. “The Summer Day”

The speaker describes a day spent wandering in nature. At the end of this piece, they question how they should have spent their time.

“I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

12. “Sometimes” 

In her poem “Sometimes,” the author leaves clear instructions on how to live life:

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

13. “I Worried” 

Chances are that you will connect with the theme of the poem, “I Worried.” In it, the speaker worries about the world, relationships, and health. Finally, the speaker comes to this conclusion:

“Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.”

Mary Oliver Poems to Share at a Funeral or Memorial Service

Any of the poems on our list could be used at a funeral or memorial service – especially if the deceased was a nature lover. Here are two more poems to consider for your future funeral or the service for a loved one.

14. “Don’t Hesitate”

For some, this poem about joy may be an odd choice for a memorial service or funeral. However, if the deceased was a special person who saw joy in all things, perhaps this would be the perfect selection. It begins, 

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it.”

15. “Starlings in Winter” 

The first part of the poem describes the magic in the movement of a flock of starlings. However, the mood of the poem changes quickly with these words:

“I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.”

“It Mustn’t Be Fancy”

People love Oliver’s poems because they are so accessible. In fact, the poet said that to be understood, poetry “mustn’t be fancy.”

Even though the average reader can understand Oliver’s poetry, it still explores hard-hitting topics like faith, relationships, life, and death. So take time to read Mary Oliver’s work. We think you will find the perfect selection for your loved one’s funeral. 

  1. “Mary Oliver.” Poetry Foundation. Poetryfoundation.org. Accessed 8 March 2022.

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