Bang the Drum: Elegy for the Grieving. {poetry}

Hard week. I’m at a grief retreat with 24 other people on Whidbey Island in Washington. Around me, new friends are crying and ranting about brokenness, abandonment, bitterness, depression and anger. Emotions are flying against the walls as we try to express the depths of our grief. My emotions aren’t fluid today. My words sputter, unable to catch fire and shift into gear.

The next day I have several hours at a nearby beach, and walk along the rocky shore littered with the broken shells and dead bodies of sea life. I watch the unsettled swirling and surging of the primordial Pacific Ocean, and think of the struggle for survival going on beneath the surface. When I realize that we who grieve are fighting for our own survival, the words begin to come for Bang the Drum. The ocean’s rhythm inspires a four-beat cadence.

An old tradition in the Lotus Sutra sect of Buddhism uses the beating of a drum to send one’s compassion out to others. After the devastating events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the drum took on an additional meaning, the sharing of peace. Years ago, I stood in the rain beside these bald, grey-robed nuns from Japan as we protested nuclear weapons, and listened to the soft rhythm of their drums. Their cadence had six beats with a half beat after the sixth.

In the evening, the power on Whidbey goes out because of a storm. In the darkness, as we listen to the roar of trees being swirled around us by the gusting wind, I read my poem to the light of flames flickering in the fireplace. Elea plays the cadence on a drum.


We open ourselves to the wilderness of each other and share our struggles with grief. We speak of the sorrows that have torn love’s fabric apart. We listen to each other, feel compassion rise from our hearts, and speak words of acceptance and understanding. We share our compassion through tears, hands, and hugs. The life of a new community can be felt in the beating of our hearts.

For you, and for all our loved ones who died:

Bang the Drum


Death lies scattered on the rocky beach.

The broken bodies of oysters and crabs.

The tidal zone between is and was.

Bang the drum slowly.


Storm clouds gather over the pewter bay.

Darkness below in the silent water.

Seagulls and terns, blue herons, osprey.

Bang the drum slowly.


The sea is the womb of life and dreams,

but damn its melancholy, lonely despair.

Damn the ocean and its ancient rhythm.

Bang the drum loudly!


F*ck the deaths that have torn our hearts down.

F*ck the male, inarticulate rage.

F*ck the mute stones, the driftwood gaze.

Bang the drum loudly!


But praise, praise the love we share.

Praise this gathering of broken hearts.

Praise early coffee and late night talks.

Bang the drum gently.


Bless our listening in the silent hours.

Bless the holding in each other’s arms.

Bless our tears when words fall short.

Bang the drum softly.


Bang the drum for our sons and daughters,

for husbands and wives, mothers and friends.

Shout death’s name to a clueless world.

Bang the drum loudly!


Love in grief has a powerful rhythm.

Bang the drum with courage and strength!

Bang it loud filled with compassion!

Bang the drum proudly!


Bang your drum.

Bang your drum.

Bang your drum.

Bang your drum.




MarkLiebenowMark Liebenow writes about grief for the Huffington Post. His essays, poems, and reviews have been published in journals like Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry, Citron Review, Swink, Crab Orchard, DMQ Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. The author of four books, he has won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, and the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay awards. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and named a notable essay by Best American Essays 2012. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. You could contact Mark via his website.


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