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when death comes | a poem by Mary Oliver

I recently read this poem and have been so struck by it. I read it and reread it. I've been drawn back to it again and again, and each time it seems to hit me in a slightly different way. I guess that's the beauty and the point of poetry - to say and do what prose can't.

This poem, called When Death Comes, is by the late Mary Oliver. I'm only recently discovering her marvellous work. It is available in this book: Risking Everything - 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, edited by Roger Housden.

I encourage you to read it slowly - when you have a few minutes to savour it thouhttfully.

I offer it to you, in the hope that you might be touched and inspired by it too.


When death comes

like the hungry bear in autumn;

when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;

when death comes

like the measle-pox

when death comes

like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything

as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,

and I look upon time as no more than an idea,

and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common

as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,

tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something

precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world


Not that this poem needs it, but here's a few reflection questions if you find it helpful:

  • how is your faith actively training you to face death? (not in theory, but in reality)

  • Central to the Christian faith is a hope in a new creation. This is not the end of this world and a sort of brand new world made from scratch. It's a renovated material cosmos. It is heaven on earth. And the outlandish biblical hope is that God will resurrect us with physical resurrection bodies. Do you ever imagine what that moment of new resurrection life might be like? Of opening your eyes once again, for the first time?

  • How might the reality and inevitability of death shape our wonder and amazement and appreciation of life in our world today?

  • Do you find it easy to get caught up in the busyness of life, such that days and weeks go by and you haven't had one present moment truly savoured? If so, you're not alone. Perhaps you want to take 30 seconds, right now, to close your eyes, and cherish the sheer gift of life and existence. You're alive right now. Isn't that utterly, indescribably amazing?

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