How the Dead Talk to Us

All Saints' Day in Poland

All Saints’ Day in Poland

All Hallow’s Eve

As we dedicate this weekend to remembering our dead—today is All Hallow’s Eve, aka Allhallowe’en—I share a Naomi Shihab Nye poem addressed to someone she has lost. The “Fifth of May” title appears to refer the birthday of the one who has died.

To her question whether the dead “stay silent as the sheet you died under,” she answers in the negative and finds ways in which those who have passed on communicate with us: perhaps through the flickering white candle we have lit, perhaps through the birds that come to our feeders.

She reassures her friend, who shares her pain, that the death has brought the two of them closer together. It has taken the brokenness that is death to show them just how close they are. This is the way not to be broken.

I know that my own family grew closer after my eldest son’s death although (as Nye notes) it took a while. Eventually my two remaining sons bonded in a special way–they are best friends–and Julia and I also experienced a deeper connection. We knew for certain that our marriage was forever. Here’s the poem:

Cinco de Mayo

By Naomi Shihab Nye

If this is your birthday and you are dead,
do we stay silent as the sheet
you died under? No. You always talked.
Here’s a thick white candle whispering.
Pour birdseed into feeders.
Speak up, speak up.

Tell me where they go, my friend said,
in the same pain. I touched her shoulder.
Here, right here. You’re closer than
you ever were — takes a while to know that.
Every scrap of DNA, he’s listening.
There’s a way not to be broken
that takes brokenness to find it.

The poem reminds me of lines from Mary Oliver’s poem on John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed):


the secret, and the pain,

there’s a decision: to die,
or to live, to go on
caring about something.  

The way not to be broken is to go on loving, to go on caring about something. You must make a decision to take this path.


Notes: Oliver’s poem “John Chapman” can be found here.  I’ve written about it here. I was alerted to the Nye poem by my friend Rachel, who sent it to me in remembrance of my son Justin.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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