“Compassionate Friends” by Anne Starling

Anne Starling


Almost immediately, we feel
we are too advanced for this group
of grieving parents, his father and I;
two months in, we’re clearly
acing bereavement, differing from the
poor souls around the conference
table. Turns out the woman next
to me has been coming for eight years
(her husband stopped at six). She wears
a tiny locket bearing the ashes
of her daughter, killed in a car accident
at seventeen. I’m horrified because
ashes smashes, I don’t

believe in ashes. Those are not his
out in the studio, then the guest room—
my son’s six-four and alive.
The facilitator (her teenager committed
suicide) asks me to tell the group one
wonderful thing about my child. I don’t
want to use the past tense to describe him.
Finally, after she asks again, I tell
a story from when he was three,
and the talk was of India.
On hearing many people there are poor,
so poor they have to sleep on the street,
he spoke consideringly: In India,
they must have to drive very carefully.

The darndest things, kids say. Anyway, I’ve
gathered all the books, even one called
Tips for Grieving. If there’re tips, how bad
can it be? We’ve seen a therapist,
cried openly at home, for days and nights
cried in the car and on the
sidewalk, behind our sunglasses. Tears in our
ears from lying on our backs crying over

him. The facilitator asks if we’d be
interested in putting his name on an angel ornament
for the organization’s annual Christmas tree.
I say that sounds like a good idea. Later,

I hold the snapshot of our child at four
in sweater vest and seasonal plaid shirt,
staunch little khakis,
singing carols with his preschool class—
all that earnest, cherubic abandon. The last thing

either of us wants is his name on a tree
decorated in memory of
children no longer living.
The truth is, what we want
is irrelevant.
The truth is
the truth is irrelevant.
That aside, this grief thing:
we have this.

from Rattle #60, Summer 2018


Anne Starling: “When I was an eight-year-old wowed by Wordsworth and Rossetti, my father would intone Kipling’s verses. I appreciated his effort to relate to my interest in poetry. A Marine colonel who’d been in three wars, he once told me he still didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. Poetry sustains me these days, perhaps because I’m so attached to the concept of true. (Truth sounds too large and overridingly, universally settled.) I tend to enjoy poems that express what’s true for the author, at the time. When I wrote ‘Compassionate Friends,’ I was in the very early, shocked stage of grief for our only child. There’s a hope in the poem that grief can be surmounted, bypassed, exorcised via stubborn—and stubbornly unacknowledged—denial, coupled with copious tears. The formula hasn’t worked, but poetry helps more often than it doesn’t.”

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