The Dash Poem by Linda Ellis: Meaning, Excerpts, Lessons


Poetry is the language of feelings. It’s not always easy to put complex experiences into words, especially experiences around grief and loss. Reading poems about death helps us find understanding, even in the most challenging of times. One of the most well-known poems about death and grief is “The Dash” by Linda Ellis. 

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Though this poem is easy enough to understand upon first reading, it’s worth digging a little deeper. Thanks to this poem, the term “dash” is often used when referring to legacy and end-of-life planning. While it’s easy to worry about your final wishes, what really matters? It comes down to your “dash,” the line between your birth date and death date.

Most importantly, Linda Ellis’ poem asks whether you’re happy with your life. What do you want others to say at your funeral? How do you wish to be remembered? These questions can be intimidating to ask, but they’re how we learn to tell our stories.

We never know when our time will be up. All we can do is the best with the time we’ve been granted. In this guide, a literature expert takes you through “The Dash” by Linda Ellis, diving into its meaning, excerpts, and key lessons. 

What’s the Origin of ‘The Dash’ by Linda Ellis?

First, understanding the origin behind a poem often gives clarity to the meaning. Linda Ellis was born in the UK in the 1950s, but she wasn’t always a poet. She began her career in the United States working her way up the corporate ladder, but she always had a passion for writing.

After reflecting on her life, Ellis recognized that the corporate world wasn’t fulfilling to her personally. Once she left, she began pursuing writing professionally. 

“The Dash” was written in 1996, though it wasn’t published until later in 2004. This was the poem that became famous, inviting Ellis to numerous other opportunities. Blown away by how the poem resonated with readers, she has since expanded upon her work to create a full-blown self-help book. The Dash: Making a Difference with Your Life expands on the ideas in the poem, providing inspiration for a brighter legacy. 

“The Dash” is a poem about enjoying your time here on earth. However, the idea didn’t come from Ellis’ own experience. Instead, while working her corporate job, she heard about a co-worker’s wife who was terminally ill.

This individual felt sorrow at the end of her life knowing she’d spent so much time worrying instead of living. It’s hard to live in the present moment, but it’s also easy to let life pass you by. 

This experience with her co-worker gave Ellis her own moment of reflection. What would that woman do if she had the opportunity to relive her life again? Would she be less concerned about the future and more focused on the now? How much control do we have over the time we’re given?

With this in mind, Ellis penned the now-famous “The Dash.” Today, the poem has touched millions around the globe and continues to be shared as inspiration for living life to the fullest.

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What Is the Meaning of ‘The Dash’ Poem?

Now that you understand the history behind “The Dash” poem by Linda Ellis, what does this poem mean? Though some poems can be tricky to understand, this one is purposefully straightforward. Ellis didn’t hide her meaning behind the symbolism and wordy language. Rather, she wanted this poem to be easily understood by all, giving it universal connectivity. 

“The Dash,” at its core, is a narrative poem. It follows the story of a man speaking at the funeral of a friend. As he gives a eulogy, he shares that the dates on the headstone don’t really matter at all. What’s really important is the “dash” between the birthdate and the death date. Though small, the dash is the sum of life’s experiences, relationships, and feelings. 

Then, after recounting this story of a man giving a eulogy, the narrator invites readers to reflect on how they’re living their own lives. What would you do differently if you knew your time was running out? We can never be certain of the time we have, and nothing is guaranteed. The only thing we can do is make the most of our lives while we’re still breathing.

At last, the poem asks readers to imagine their own funeral services. Would you be proud of what people say about your own “dash”? In fact, we are all writers of our own stories. Though we often fixate on milestones like birthdates and death dates, these aren’t the meaningful parts of our stories. The meaning of “The Dash” poem is to examine your own legacy and live life to the fullest. You never know when your next day will be your last. 

Quotes From ‘The Dash’ Explained

Next, let’s examine some stand-out quotes from “The Dash.” Though we won’t go line by line, we will take note of the key moments in this poem that make it so influential. Learning to read poems deeply and intentionally is the best way to understand their true meaning. 

“He referred to the dates on the tombstone / From the beginning . . . to the end” 

If you’re not that familiar with headstones, you might be confused about what this line is referring to. A headstone typically has certain inscriptions, including the individual’s birth date and death date. These lines begin the narrative story by sharing that these dates on the tombstone are what people look at first, but they’re not the most important part of our lives. 

“But he said what mattered most of all / Was the dash between those years”

As the speaker says, we are more than the sum of our years. These dates matter, but they’re only the bookends of our stories. The dash between the two dates (i.e., 1950–2005) is where all the real experiences are—our core memories. Here, Ellis uses the “dash” as a metaphor for life. 

“And now only those who loved them / Know what that little line is worth” 

The headstone is seen as a well-known symbol of mourning, but it does little to tell our stories. Only those who “loved them” know the reality of that dash. These are the people who know your joys, your pains, and your memories. The dates themselves don’t matter. You have to know how to read between the lines. 

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“What matters is how we live and love / And how we spend our dash”

Ellis draws a comparison with the word “spend.” Though we “spend” money on things like “cars . . . the house . . . the cash,” this isn’t the type of “spending” that means anything. Instead, it matters how we spend the time we have (our dash). 

“For you never know how much time is left”

Though we know death is certain, there are no guarantees of when it will come. Though many make it to old age, not everyone is that lucky. You have to learn to live in the moment to appreciate right here and now. 

“And be less quick to anger / And show appreciation more” 

Here, the author shares ways to live a better life. We need to learn to love fully, hold back our anger, and appreciate what we have. When we focus on living life to the fullest, we truly make the most of our time. 

“Would you be proud of the things they say / About how you spent YOUR dash?”

Lastly, the narrator asks readers how they’d feel about their own dash. Thinking about your own funeral and eulogy is a powerful exercise. Though it might be scary to think of the end, this is also an invitation to live life on your own terms. You don’t want to live with any regrets. 

Popular Takeaways or Lessons From ‘The Dash’

Finally, there are a lot of special takeaways and lessons we can learn from “The Dash” by Linda Ellis. Though every ready will have his or her own interpretation, here are some of the most popular lessons. 

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Make the most of your life

Just as the poet herself shifted her life focus when she realized the corporate world wasn’t a fit for her, you need to live life boldly. It’s not enough to approach each day like a passive bystander. Be an active participant in each day, making the most of the time you have. 

Love the people in your life

In the section of this poem where Ellis shares ways to live your dash, most focus on being open with your love. She writes, “Love the people in our lives / Like we’ve never loved before.” When you treat others with respect and kindness, the world is a better place. In other words, life is too short not to be kind and loving. 

Money can’t buy happiness

Another less obvious lesson from “The Dash” is about the worth of material things. Though we often measure success by how much we have, this isn’t what matters in the end. You can’t take these things with you. Your “dash” is about your experiences, relationships, and feelings. It’s not about what you own.  

Live Your Own Dash

Ultimately, this poem is an invitation to live your own life to the fullest. Linda Ellis has a way of taking complex topics and breaking them down into inspirational steps. The idea of reflecting on your “dash” after your funeral is scary, but it doesn’t have to be. The best way to face your mortality is to make peace with your decisions today. 

The more open you are with your life and wishes, the easier it becomes to live without regrets. Have you given any thought to your own “dash?” To get started, create your own end-of-life plan today. You deserve to be the author of your legacy.


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