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Mary Oliver was an American poet who died January 17, 2019, at the age of 83. One of America's most loved poets, she won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for her work and is often quoted in our palliative care community. Mary Oliver's poems employ beautiful visions of nature, and within these, she weaves important themes and lessons about life and mortality. In honor of her work, following are some themes from her poems that my colleague Ellen Friedmann and I selected as applicable to the profession of palliative nursing.


Death is part of life, not a disease or something to be denied.


Mary Oliver speaks of death and mortality as a natural part of life, not something to be shunned. Palliative care nurses are reminded that death is the natural result of having lived. Mary Oliver envisions her perfect life to be away in nature with time to write poetry.


A Dream of Trees1


There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,


A quiet house, some green and modest acres


A little way from every troubling town,


A little way from factories, schools, laments.


I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,


With only streams and birds for company.


To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.


And then it came to me, that so was death,


A little way away from everywhere.


We, too, are mortal.


Palliative care nurses are accustomed to caring for others, easing the way for those who are suffering, who are in pain, or at the end of life. But, we are mortal as well.


The Summer Day1


[horizontal ellipsis]Tell me, what else should I have done?


Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?


Tell me, what is it you plan to do


With your one wild and precious life?


White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field1


[horizontal ellipsis]maybe death


isn't darkness, after all,


but so much light


wrapping itself around us[horizontal ellipsis]


Life is precious.


When Death Comes1


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


Starlings in Winter2


[horizontal ellipsis]I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.


I want to be light and frolicsome.


I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,


as though I had wings[horizontal ellipsis]


Such Singing in the Wild Branches2


[horizontal ellipsis]Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn't last


for more than a few moments.


It's one of those magical places wise people


like to talk about.


One of the things they say about it, that is true,


is that, once you've been there,


you're there forever.


Listen, everyone has a chance.


Is it spring, is it morning?


Are there trees near you,


and does your own soul need comforting?


Quick, then-open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song


may already be drifting away[horizontal ellipsis]


Mary Oliver's poetry and the contributions of other poets, artists, and authors serve as a context, a backdrop, to see and appreciate the precious and sacred moments of life. They encourage us to celebrate our own lives, the lives of our colleagues, and the lives of those for whom we care.


Betty R. Ferrell, PhD, CHPN, FAAN, FPCN


Ellen T. Friedmann, JD




1. Oliver M. New and Selected Poems, Volume 1. Boston, MA: Beacon Press; 2013. [Context Link]


2. Oliver M. Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays. Boston, MA: Beacon Press; 2006. [Context Link]