‘The Second Worst Thing’

Normally I would not put up another post so close on the heels of the first, but a comment from my real and blogger friend Gretta has inspired me to put up two of Gretta’s poems from an anthology that Helen Annand published in 1998. The anthology is called
The second Worst Thing: Poems on Surviving the Death of a Child.

Gretta describes the poem she has already posted on Dustchange as her one poem on grieving. Perhaps she has forgotten these. I have not and never will.

I’m afraid I cannot format the text as it is laid out on the page in the original, but the words are as intended.

Birthday Song

Bobbing, bobbing
in my bed of tears.

I saw how they would be.
Smooth skin, knobbly wrists
jutting from cuffs
on long skinny arms.

He’s dead.
He’s grey ash in the garden.
No knobbly wrists?
No teenage wrists.
Skinny arms?
Never were…
Never will.


smother me in white clay
the cracked mud of mourning

stop up my ears
no clamouring silence
cover my eyes
no grey bundle of flesh
plug my nose
no sour yellow seepings
plaster my lips
no kisses lost on vacant skin

For Christopher who died at 8 months and Joel, at 4 months.

31 thoughts on “‘The Second Worst Thing’”

  1. I've been on vacation in the Grand Tetons doing some backcountry skiing with close friends, and I've now been back home for 2 weeks. My computer crashed toward the end of this vacation time, and I've been working since my return on getting a new one up and running. All this by way of explaining how it is that I've been silent for some time.

    I look forward to your posts, and each gives me more strength and energy to be more honest in all things. Thanks for doing what you do and for being who you are.

  2. These poems are stark and complex. I can't even fathom how it would be to lose a child – to lose two children. It's unimaginable.

    Clamouring silence.

    Does she have other children?

    My heart aches.

  3. Thanks, Dan. Welcome back These are not my poems but they speak powerfully to me of feelings that are often times beyond our reach. I'm glad they resonate for you, too.

  4. Elisabeth – why has it taken me until now to twig that you, too, have a blog?!

    These poems of Gretta's are as clean and eloquent as infancy itself and move me all the more for their simple grief. Stunning. I have never lost a child – only potentials: three of them. I cannot imagine holding a child then letting go of it of my own will.

  5. Kass, they are poignant poems, full of intensity. I put them up because they exemplify for me a form of poetry that is powerful and resonant.

    I don't think we write as therapy and yet I think the writing experience can be therapeutic and can help us to deal with unbearable states of being.

    One of my favourite writers, Siri Hustvedt asks the question:
    'Is the wounded self the writing self? Is the writing self an answer to the wounded self? Perhaps that is more accurate. The wound is static, a given. The writing self is multiple and elastic, and it circles the wound. Over time, I have become more aware of the fact that I must try not to cover that speechless, hurt core; that I must fight my dread of the mess and violence that are also there. I have to write the fear.'

    Thanks, Kass.

  6. Rachel, thank you for your sensitive response. I'm glad you found my blog.

    I agree Gretta's poems are 'like infancy itself' – so vulnerable and to think that you have lost three potentials.

    It's cruel.

    I had a miscarriage once, only once, but it stays with me as one of my most painful experiences.

    I have four wonderful daughters. The one I lost at ten weeks I fantasied was a boy – because I lost him. I was good with girls I figured. I had three of them by then. I christened him 'Horatio who could not hold the bridge.'

    The doctor put it down to the lottery of pregnancy and told me I should not hold myself responsible, but I did, at least for a while.

    Your loss, my mother's loss (which I wrote about in my previous post) and Gretta's, resonate for me and I imagine for all of us, men and women alike who have lost – whether in fact or in fantasy – their beloved babies or children.

    Thank you.

  7. Thanks Bonnie. You of all people know about loss and the comfort that writing can bring. Thanks for your kind words.

    Thanks also to you, Mike. I can say to you just as I have written to Bonnie, you too know about loss and the ways in which writing about our losses can help to ease the pain and to make sense of the experience.

    It's not just parents who lose children, it's children who lose parents, and not simply through death. Your writing of late echoes this most powerfully. Thank you.

  8. I hope Gretta, you've seen here how much people appreciate your writing.

    Thanks, Dave. I'm glad I posted these poems, too. You know a great deal about the power of poetry.

  9. As I never could have children to call my own baby's what I experienced
    as the biggest loss in my life,when I read these breath taking words I know now too,loosing a child it is the second worst experience in womans life,with all do respect to fathers.Thank you for this Elisabeth,very moving.

  10. I'm sorry to hear about your situation, Aleks, not having a child. Everyone's pain is different. We can't measure for another. We can only empathize as best we can. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response.

    Thanks, Phoenix. You use a beautiful simile here, 'a cold lake in the morning'. It is a measure of the poem's resonance and your own poetic sensibilities. I'm grateful that you share it with us.

  11. I confess to having averted my gaze from the first one. In the end, I had to read it. It's beautiful but only in the way that the mushroom left behind by an atomic bomb is beautiful.

    Many thanks for posting these poems.

    Greetings from London.

  12. these poems are heart-breaking and beautiful and the silence in them is POUNDING. thank you so much for sharing them. i will be tracking down the anthology. does she have a book of her own out? this is such hard and gorgeous work.

  13. I cannot imagine. I have wrapped so many dead bodies but the children's they always get me. I wept with my last one and finally said enough! My heart broke every time I gave the dead child to the grieving parents. It's when I wished I had superpowers. But I did not have any.

  14. Thanks, Cuban. I agree with your simile. Heartbreaking beauty that is hard to face.

    Hi Angela . Gretta's work is probably hard to get a hold of, at least the anthology is. Limited edition etc and no reprints as far as I know. the idea of the poetry as 'pounding' has a resonance of its own.

    And finally, thanks Willow, for your kind words. It's good to meet you on my blog.

  15. so odd to come here and find people who are sad for me. Please don't ruin your day over my old griefs! I had forgotten about these two poems – I feel sick when I read them now – they are so raw.

    I too am so sad for the poor woman that wrote those poems, but I am not her any more. My husband and I were completely shattered by these deaths, but over the years, with the help of loving family and friends, we have put ourselves together again. We are fragile, like most mended things, but we are better people.

    I think we were lucky to learn in our twenties how fleeting and precious life is. I'm sure I also have much more compassion than I would have otherwise. I try hard to remember Plato's message "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

    Be happy, people! Be here now!

  16. Thanks again, Ces.

    Working in the field of sick babies must be terribly hard. For your sake I'm glad you moved on. foe yor arts sake, too. I don't imagine you could manage all you do if you were too overwhelemed woth life's cruelties.

    Thanks, Gretta for your encouraging words, for telling us so clearly that life moves on even in the face of unbearable trauma, life moves on. We all know this but it's good to be reminded of it.

    And finally here, thanks Stephen. I'm not a poet either but I admire poetry as one of our most powerful forms of communication.

  17. Hi Elisabeth, so nice of you to drop by my blog, my name is Karen Xavier, and I am pleased to meet you too. Your story here in the previous post, bout your baby sister was haunting… God bless her soul & the two other boys mentioned here Christopher and Joel, take care.

  18. Thank you, Elisabelle. Given what you are struggling with at present, these are kind words indeed. Of course I agree with them. We want our children to outlive us. It's a desire and an illusion. We can't always have it but we want it, we need it for our peace of mind, for our children's sake. Life can be cruel as you well know.

    Thanks Karen, for getting back to my blog and for your thoughtful comment here.

    Thanks, Dave. I agree that these poems here are compelling. They touch the rawness of grief. It is good to share our writing.

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