Ambushed by Grief

Ambushed by Grief

This week’s choice is “For Grief” by John O’Donohue, and it says everything I want to say about grief. I’ve chosen it for all my friends and family who remember Nicola and for those who are grieving for their loss, whether recent or long past.

You are able to function well
Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.

John O’Donohue (1956—2008)

Poem 270. For Grief

When you lose someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you gets fragile,
Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
And some dead echo drags your voice down
Where words have no confidence.
Your heart has grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss has wounded others too,
No one knows what has been taken from you
When the silence of absence deepens.

Flickers of guilt kindle regret
For all that was left unsaid or undone.

There are days when you wake up happy;
Again inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss.
Days when you have your heart back,
You are able to function well
Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.

It becomes hard to trust yourself.
All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.

Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And, when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.

I have little to say because this poem or blessing says it so well and so colourfully. It comes from John O’Donohue’s book “Benedictus: A Book of Blessings” which is a marvellous resource of comforting thoughts. Sadly O’Donohue died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 52, two months after the publication of Benedictus, which makes this blessing all the more poignant.

O’Donohue expresses the sensation of grief perfectly: “the silence of absence” reflecting the quietness that falls when you are the only one around, “the black tide of loss” a wonderful metaphor for the depression that comes with grief, and “ambushed by grief” is absolutely spot-on for the way we find ourselves struggling to hold back our emotions at random inexplicable moments.

It is hard to judge when the “coiled hill of tears” has been reduced and the “work of grief” is done. It seems impossible that the “wound of loss will heal” but as I have said to a friend this week: “In time, the grief, confusion and pain lessen, and though they never depart completely, you have a lifetime of love and memories to draw on that I hope will bring you comfort.”

I found this blessing in “The Poetry Pharmacy Returns” by William Sieghart—I recommend this book and Sieghart’s first volume in the series, “The Poetry Pharmacy” to anyone beset by fear, doubt and sorrow. I have bought O’Donohue’s book “Benedictus” and have found it interesting and inspiring.


  • Read about John O’Donohue at his official website.
  • Watch Deborah Allen’s performance on YouTube.
  • Listen to John O’Donohue’s interview with Krista Tippett of the On Being podcast on YouTube. This was one of his last interviews before his untimely death.
  • Visit the Poetry Pharmacy.