Poetry – a trigger for empathetic understanding?

mClancyGuest Post from Marie Clancy, PGCE, MPH, B/Nurs

Senior Lecturer Child Branch Nursing

University of Wolverhampton,

Faculty of Education, Health and Well-being


Hi everyone,

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Kirsten Jack in April this year, at the RCN Education Forum Conference and Exhibition – ‘Partners in Practice’, Nottingham, UK. I presented a paper on a recent educational initiative I have been conducting at the University of Wolverhampton. If you are reading this, you might share our passion for using creative methods in teaching and learning, and be interested to hear about my experiences at Wolverhampton.

The aim of my project was to explore the impact of poetry on child branch student nurses at the beginning of their third year critical care module. Prior to the exercise students were asked how they felt about three topics;

    • The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) environment


    • The responsibility of the NICU nurse


    • Neonatal bereavement.

When discussing the alien nature of the equipment in the NICU environment, and the parents’ view of the responsibilities of the NICU nurse, the students appeared on the whole to be knowledgeable, confident, understanding and caring towards families’ needs and fears. However, on the subject of neonatal death and parental bereavement, students were fearful, emotional, and uncertain and felt lacking in the necessary experience. Students worried about how they might communicate with bereaved parents and felt that they might be so upset as to appear ‘unprofessional’

Students reflect on the three topics prior to seeing the poems:



The poems chosen were written by parents who had experienced NICU and included;

1) ‘As I Love You Through The Glass’ By Elena Murphy (a mother’s experience of the NICU environment)

2) ‘Into Your Hands’ By Alan Van Orman (the responsibility of the NICU nurse)

3) ‘Dark Empty Pit’ By Lynette Marie Stokes (a mothers suffering following neonatal bereavement)

Students were particularly moved by the poem ‘Dark Empty Pit’:

Dark Empty Pit

Lynette Marie Stokes

The alarms go off, strange sights and sounds,

You are so sick, so tiny, so tiny.

I ask the nurse if I can have you in my arms,

But you are too sick, too tiny, too tiny.

They say you won’t live, the odds are against you,

I can’t understand what they say, they don’t even know you.

I weep in my hands, my head hanging low,

How will I possibly ever let you go?

They come in the night to speak of choices,

For one of you is passing, an angel rejoices.

I cannot rejoice, my heart is too sad,

Anger wells up, swells up and I only feel mad!

Just when I thought the path was clear,

It would seem I would shed yet another tear.

Away to heaven you’ve gone, another grave,

Your sister is next and unable to be saved.

Three angels later and I am alone,

No one to love, to rock, or to hug,

The emptiness I feel is too much to bear,

I am a dark empty pit, I no longer care.

The students reported feelings of sadness on reading the poem and it reminded them of the need for a compassionate approach when supporting grieving parents. For some students, the poem provided insight into an experience they had never had, and supported feelings of empathy. The use of a poem as a way of teaching was helpful, due to the multiple meanings found in poetry compared to other media.

Following individual reading of the poems and performing them to each other, the students then reflected on how they felt about the topics and the use of poetry.


Overall, the exercise had helped address some of student’s fears and concerns and worries which had been uncovered during other theory based sessions. Students were very engaged in the poetry sessions and attendance was 100%. After the activities, students felt they had ‘very high’ or ‘high’ levels of;

    • knowledge (72%)


    • empathy (84%)


    • concern for families (97%)

They also made additional comments which were very positive:

“Thought-provoking exercise – really good idea and session”

“Great new way of learning”

“Really interesting exercise and gained knowledge from a parent’s perspective”

Different way of learning

“Very interesting and in depth start to the module”

“Eye-opening. Thank you!”

“This was helpful and encouraged me to think more about effects on the parents”

“Really different way of teaching. Never done this before but did enjoy it and have found it beneficial.”

I have really enjoyed teaching using poetry and reading about the interesting ways you have been using poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University. I would love to hear any feedback or thoughts you have and am really excited to commence some collaborative work with Kirsten.


Wednesday 10th June 2015

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