Tracy K. Smith On Grief And The Holidays : Life Kit As we inch toward the holidays, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith shares how she's processing grief, a subject at the center of much of her work.
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Poet Tracy K. Smith On Grief In The Holidays And 'Different Vocabularies For Feeling'

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Poet Tracy K. Smith On Grief In The Holidays And 'Different Vocabularies For Feeling'

Poet Tracy K. Smith On Grief In The Holidays And 'Different Vocabularies For Feeling'

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This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Kat Chow.


CHOW: The holidays can, any year, exacerbate feelings of loss or grief. But this pandemic, holidays might be made harder just because many of us aren't able to celebrate or observe them like we usually would. When I was a kid, I watched the winter holidays shift for my family after my mother died. We no longer gathered with her family, and instead, it was just my sisters, my dad and me, which at first felt so quiet. It took us years for the holidays to feel like holidays. And this year, in the middle of the pandemic, I lost an uncle, and it feels surreal still not being able to gather with family to mourn, not having the usual traditions to help direct our grief. I've had to figure out ways to honor his life on my own.


CHOW: Like many others, I'm bracing for the holidays, both in terms of the isolation but also because of this atmosphere of grief, not knowing what we will lose still or what the ripple effects of this loss looks like. And I know I'm not alone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I don't know what it's going to look like this year, but I know that her tradition won't go away.

CHOW: We heard from many of you about how you cope in this time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We would always continue to hang Dad's Christmas stocking on the fireplace mantle.

CHOW: We heard about all the ways we find to keep our lost relatives alive...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: My mom's passing became even more reason for us to eat our holiday foods, exchange gifts and sing.

CHOW: ...The little reminders that hold big meaning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Seeing my grandmother's china on the table really brings her back to me.

CHOW: The holidays can always feel like this marker of time, another year gone by without the people you've lost. So this episode of LIFE KIT is designed to help you think about your own personal connection to grief this time of year.

TRACY K SMITH: We all have our own language for what we've lived and what loss feels like.

CHOW: That's poet Tracy K. Smith, former U.S. poet laureate. She hosts the podcast "The Slowdown." And so much of her work centers on loss. She talked with me about her own experiences and how we all might get through the holidays with so much grief.


CHOW: Tracy K. Smith's collection of poetry, "Life On Mars," won a Pulitzer Prize. And I regularly send that collection, as well as Tracy's memoir, "Ordinary Light," to friends who are experiencing loss. I started my conversation with Tracy by asking her a big question.

So, Tracy, I was wondering - I mean, so much has happened in 2020. There are so many people, there are so many things to grieve. In general this year, how have you been thinking about grief?

SMITH: Yeah. I feel like I've been wearing it, carrying it more, you know, closer to the surface than usual for the last many months. And it's done interesting things because on one hand, I feel a deep wish to connect to my parents, who are both gone, because I would love to know what they could tell me about having lived through, you know, their history. They both grew up in the Jim Crow-era South. They came of age during the civil rights movement. And that history, which had always felt far away when I was growing up, feels like it's upon us again now. And so I long for their voices.

But I also feel that time feels porous. It feels like maybe it never goes away. Maybe, you know, this movement that we belong to isn't new. It's part of something that's been going on for more than even just, you know, a few generations. Maybe this is something - I don't know - that runs through the ages in a way. And somehow I'm trying to dig into that sense of connection wherever I can find or imagine it to be.

CHOW: I was wondering if there's a way you've been considering this as it applies to the upcoming holidays. You know, it's, as I mentioned before, the holidays - so many people who I have heard from are bracing for it. They're trying to figure out a plan or small things that they can do. But for you personally, how are you considering the holidays right now?

SMITH: Yeah, it's hard. I'm thinking about how to make space for that longing. And I feel like that's long been a part of holidays for me, but, of course, it's exacerbated now. And one way that I've always kind of dealt with it is let's make space for the traditions that our parents fostered. Let's make space for the foods that we ate together. I started early with cooking up food that conjures a sense of my parents. My dad's birthday was Halloween, and so we baked a birthday cake, one of his favorite cakes. And I knew this cake from way back when, but I haven't tasted it for probably, like, 30 years. And I didn't even quite remember what it would taste like. And so that first bite was just this amazing, beautiful, sad swirling of presence.

CHOW: Right. What was the cake?

SMITH: Oh, gosh. It's called an orange slice cake. It sounds crazy. I imagine my mom probably got the recipe from, like, a ladies magazine in the '50s or '60s or something. It's kind of like a fruitcake. But it felt - you know, it felt bittersweet in a way.

CHOW: Yeah, definitely. That's such a lovely tradition. I mean, I keep thinking about the small things that we do to hold family close. After my mother passed when I was young, my family just - we didn't know what to do. We didn't know how to acknowledge her death. And in Chinese culture, one of the things that I particularly grew up doing to honor the dead was burning incense for Lunar New Year or, you know, for funerals. And as a child, I didn't really quite get it. But now, as an adult, I find myself turning to that tradition now, even in my own personal time, even if it's not Lunar New Year. And it feels so wonderful to be able to meditate and take this space with them. And I know that in your work, you have written quite a bit about just the ways in which people are still with us. What are some ways that people can sort of piece together their own meaning and attach it to rituals to get them through?

SMITH: Well, I feel like it's so important - you know, what we often think about, even when we're anticipating loss, is this is going to hurt for a time, and then I'll find a way through that to some form of, like, having been healed, you know, like, healing. And I feel like it's so important to embrace the fact that it will always hurt. Something will always be gone. And that space is something that it's important to guard and to mark and to understand that there's also - I don't know - something else that gathers there.

And what I love about what you're saying about the incense is marking a space, conjuring a space where I can be present, mindful and attentive to, you know, what might linger in some way, what might see or sense me in some way. And I feel like there are many ways of doing that. I love that there's an olfactory and sort of, like, a ritual-based way of doing that. But, of course, you know, photographs can do that. I love, you know, my sister and I talking about the memories that accompany us on that kind of, like, journey back in time. And so many of them are funny, and that laughter doesn't erase the sense of grief, but somehow it makes it, like, habitable for longer periods of time, if that makes sense.

CHOW: For sure.

SMITH: And so I love the idea that we can create a practice that feels true and natural for us but that's also receptive and attentive to these other lives.

CHOW: I love what you're saying about just being receptive and attentive because I think that, you know, I mean, whether you have just lost somebody a few months ago or the grief feels, in a way, more protracted, it is still there. And grief changes so much. And I think so much of this process is trying to figure out where these feelings lie and what they are in that exact moment and how in particular you can meet your needs, whether, you know, I mean, whether it's seeing a therapist, whether it's reaching out to loved ones or sort of turning more inward into yourself.

One of the listeners that we heard from named Krista (ph), who mentioned to us that, you know, the holidays were just not the same to her. And at first her family, you know - they thought, we just weren't sure what to do, you know, similar to many families. And I was wondering if I could just play some tape for you. Here's what she had to say.

KRISTA: The first holiday season passed in a daze of celebrating or trying to celebrate as we had when she was alive. But it had lost the magic and happiness it once had. I participated for my other family members, but it just felt empty. In the years since her death, my family has had to rebuild itself into something new. Though it still hurts not to have my sister with us, we all have a new appreciation for life and the time we had with her. She was a great baker, and we continue our annual Christmas baking in her honor. The extreme grief and anger over her death created rifts in my family. But we countered that by welcoming more people into our holiday celebrations through marriage, birth and the inclusion of more friends.

CHOW: What resonated with me so much is just hearing Krista talk about that slow work of rebuilding traditions and inability (ph) to come together as a family. What's your reaction to just hearing what she has to say?

SMITH: Well, I love that she talks about, you know, the widening circle, you know, welcoming new new people through, you know, birth and marriage and other things. I feel that is a part of my life. I have three kids, none of whom have met my parents. And they bring my parents to me in a way, you know, because I see them in them in small or very distinct ways. And then the other thing that they do is they allow me to recreate them, to say, well, this is what my mother used to always say, or to, you know, offer them stories about the past or the foods that, you know, speak to me in that beautiful, poignant way. And I think talking about the people that we love allows that to happen, too.

CHOW: Yes. Yes. For people who are experiencing something, it's this constant balance of, you know, let me speak - this person who is no longer around - let me speak their name so that they can continue to exist. But allow me to reexperience them or experience them in a different way. Maybe they're not leaving me because I don't think, you know, our loved ones ever do. But it just - it feels different.

SMITH: Yeah. And it also - I love that idea that, you know, we can't exorcise or fully even claim these relationships if we don't accept the fact that they, in their way, are ongoing and therefore changing because our lives are ongoing and our...

CHOW: Right.

SMITH: ...Perspectives are changing. You know, I can understand my mother as a woman so much more fully now that I'm a woman and not a teenager. And that is, you know - it's clarifying. It's beautiful to say, oh, she must have felt this, and her way of of dealing with that was this thing that I can remember, but now I see it differently. We should have better words, you know, for the beginning, the middle, the late stages, the ongoing thing. It has different, like - different tones - right...

CHOW: Totally.

SMITH: ...Because we live at a different proximity to it. And then we can also welcome more things in because we have different understanding about ourselves and about life.

CHOW: Completely. And I think it's interesting that - you know, I know I'm asking you about the holidays. And in this moment, I mean, what are some ways that people can connect with family about their losses that they're experiencing, also keeping in mind that everybody is experiencing it in such different ways?

SMITH: Well, what we're doing together right now is something that any of us could do. We can do that with one another. We can have moments where we say, you know what? I haven't asked you this - or have I ever told you this? Let's mark this moment. And it can be recorded or not. But simply the fact of, like, going to a different posture with one another, I think, can be healing and illuminating in wonderful ways.

I have a wish-making practice, a ritual, that started with dear friends that now my husband and now my daughter participates in it with us also. But at the end of the year, we make lists. And we say, OK, these are the things I'm grateful for. And you are, you know, like, generous in naming the things that you recognize that you've received over time and that have been meaningful to you. And then you think about the things that you're ready to receive. What are your wishes for the coming year? What do you hope to gain, and how do you hope to change?

And then the other thing that I think is really lovely is you don't stop there. You also make wishes for the people that you love. You know, what do you want these other folks in your life to gather and to receive in the coming year? I feel like that's a meaningful way of thinking about the past, the present and the future, which is a big part of what the holidays are for.

CHOW: Yeah, I can totally see that. What I love about the wish-making is how it allows for you to meet people where they are just because, you know, I know that some people in my family will not be ready and might not be ready in a long time to talk about the people who have passed, even, you know, the people who have passed years ago. And it - I think that really acknowledges just allowing people to sort of experience this loss on their own and at their own pace while also sending them a lot of support.

SMITH: Yeah. We all have our own language for what we've lived and what loss feels like. Sharing that, you know - an occasion like a funeral, you think, oh, I've got to say something big, something wise. But the small things are maybe even more necessary to pass along, you know, the tiny things that make you realize that what you shared was this huge, ongoing thing that wasn't just big moments, you know, not even primarily big moments, but that's made up of all these really small, priceless things.

CHOW: Right.

SMITH: It really is important to remember, too, that we all have different vocabularies for feeling in general, but grief is one of those really specific points of feeling. And so sometimes it's not always possible to say, let's come at this from my perspective, my vocabulary. Tell me what you think. Tell me what you understand now. That doesn't always console. That doesn't always foster anything but anxiety. Sometimes just meeting someone where they are is important and understanding, oh, everything that we're hearing, everything that we're saying to one another, everything that I'm receiving from you is coming through this huge lens of loss or fear or regret, whatever the circumstances are. And so this is - at this moment, this is your language for those things. And sometimes the way that happens with family is silence. And sometimes I think that's OK.

CHOW: Is there anything else that you want to impress upon our listeners?

SMITH: Well, I'm also thinking about - you know, I feel like we've helped each other to think, you know, in fruitful, hopeful terms about, you know, the pain that runs through our lives. But I think it's also - I mean, I've been making space to just say I hurt; I need to sit down. I need to lie down and do what it takes to just gather the energy to get up and to do what's needed or what's expected of me. I don't always feel that way, but I feel like that is something that - you know, we talk about self-care. And I feel like self-care in large part is about ministering to the reality of our own pain and exhaustion and giving ourselves what we need to to fuel up.

CHOW: Yes. I was wondering if you might be able to help me round out this conversation by reading a poem that might resonate with LIFE KIT listeners as they prepare for the holidays. So what poem would you like to share?

SMITH: OK, yeah. Well I love to read a new poem of my own that is, you know, coming sort of from what I was just talking about, like, OK, it's hard to keep going. It's hard to do the work and deal with, you know, what's coming at you. And so this is a poem that kind of arose out of one moment of saying, I'm hurting, and I need to take care of myself. And it's called "Bee On A Sill" - bee like the insect.

(Reading) Bee on a sill submits to its own weight, the bulb of itself too full, too weak or too wise to lift and go. And something blunt in me remembers the old farce about putting a thing out of its misery for it, for me. Sleep, bee, deep and easy. Hive. Heave. Give. Grieve. Then rise, when you're ready, from your soul's hard floor to sweet work or some war.

CHOW: Thank you so much for that. That was beautiful.

SMITH: Oh, thank you.


CHOW: Thanks again to Tracy K. Smith, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and host of "The Slowdown."

Finally, to end this episode, we wanted to bring it back to all of you. Grief and holiday traditions are both deeply personal things. And yet so many of you were willing to share your stories and your ideas for getting through this exceptional holiday season. If you're coping with loss and change and you're unsure what to do, we hope some of these voices might bring you some inspiration.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I'm going to surprise my siblings on our Christmas Day Zoom call with a special slideshow. You see, my Dad was a very avid photographer, but all of his photos from the '60s, '70s and early '80s have been on slides in my mom's basement. And what my siblings don't know is that I have been using some of my downtime during the pandemic to go through those slides, sort them out and have them digitized.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I also preserved her legacy by editing and publishing the family history she wrote. Now I can pick it up whenever I want to remember any of my family and set it aside, knowing the memories will still be there whenever I need them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Grief, like life, evolves, and so did our tradition. COVID is changing how we celebrate the holidays. This year, we're changing course a bit - actually, a lot a bit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: My sisters and I are talking about making sticky buns together over Zoom. A silver lining of this, even though we'll miss being together, is that it might be a nice opportunity to invite our cousins and their families, some of whom live in other parts of the country.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I like to keep it simple. I like to do things that nurture me and make me happy - take a walk, take a nap, just keep it simple and reach out when needed.


CHOW: Big thanks to listeners Lorena Campos (ph), Diana Chapelo (ph), Jennifer Stoke (ph), Joanne Santiago (ph), Krista Reid (ph), Luis Andrade (ph), Phillip Unit (ph), Liz Kamenetz (ph) and Jana Pico (ph) for sharing their stories with us.

For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got an episode on how to start therapy, another on how to give advice and lots more. You can find those at And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at

This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. Our digital editor is Clare Lombardo, and our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. I'm Kat Chow. Thanks for listening.


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