Poetry Connection: Connecting with our Deceased Loved Ones

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent

While this week is all about Christmas for me. One of the traditions I will add to my holiday events is Hospice’s Light Up a Life. I have to admit when Poet Laureate Emerita, Perie Longo, Santa Barbara’s second poet laureate, asked me to read poetry at two Hospice events, I was a little reluctant. Hospice is that bittersweet institution you don’t know you need until you are faced with the final days of a loved one. I usually keep my grief to myself and don’t wish to be consoled by strangers. However, the hospice celebrations consisted of a series of uplifting celebrations of life.

Light Up a Light is a fundraiser where people buy stars for their loved ones. After a name is placed on a star, you can put the star on their large tree or have a firefighter reach the highest bough. Given my history with Hospice and the many hours I spent taking care of my grandmother during her last month of life, I realized how nice it felt to give back to the organization. Although all events are very similar, each location adds its own flair. My favorite out of Santa Barbara, Montecito, Carpinteria, and Goleta was the one in Carpinteria because the program follows the town’s Christmas Parade and everyone is in a festive mood. The post parade crowd drew a large audience. There was also the opportunity to do some last-minute Christmas shopping at the local art market. The challenge for me was having so many events crammed into the one week, beginning with the local author day the previous Saturday at the Santa Barbara Public Library, followed by the opening Light Up a Life event in front of the Lobero Theater, followed by rehearsals for Las Posadas, the Carpinteria Light Up a Life on Wednesday, a poetry workshop and  the Independent’s holiday party on Thursday, followed by Una Noche de las Posadas on Friday. A busy week but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 I read my poem, “What the Birds Know,” from my latest book, Bird Forgiveness. The poem is about taking care of my grandmother during her last days. Thanks to hospice, my family was able to bring my grandmother home after the doctor declared there was nothing more that could be done for her. These are such hard words to hear and hospice helps family with at home support and counseling. In my case, these events happened in Del Rio, Texas.

In Santa Barbara, my hospice stories revolve around losing two good friends, most recently our beloved former Poet Laureate Sojourner Kincaid Rolle. I spent several afternoons sitting with Sojourner in her hospice room in hopes that my presence would ease her journey. In the last days of her life, I learned more about Sojourner through the variety of friends and relatives who came to visit her than in the twenty years of our friendship.

I am grateful that Perie Longo asked me read at half of the hospice events. Perie is an important member of Hospice of Santa Barbara, where she has led a group on Writing Poetry for Bereavement for twenty years; she says it feels like only twenty weeks. One of the recent changes is that the group meets on Zoom. She says that each face on zoom is part of quilt of comfort, each poem a frame to contain and hold the moment that helps everyone on the path to healing. Perie describes how over the years each group continues to be different and unique:

“I ask ‘Where does your heart land, On what word or phrase?’ The discussion prompts emotional response and those who attend write from their heart. The poetry is fresh and vulnerable, a gift to each and in a way, to me. I do point out about poetic devises used by the poet, such as metaphor, image, specific details, perhaps structure, but mostly the rawness of emotion creates a safe place for sharing and support”

This week’s poetry connection poem features Perie Longo, second Poet Laureate of the City of Santa Barbara, author of four books of poetry, and recipient of the Woman of Achievement Award from the Santa Barbara Chapter of the Association for Women in Communication. In addition to being a marriage and family therapist, as well as a poetry therapist, she is a founding faculty member of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference Poetry Workshop. She also hosts the Santa Barbara Summer Poetry Workshop.