Helen Steiner Rice’s poem “When I Must Leave You” gives her loved ones instructions for living on after the speaker’s death – to be happy and smile, to be useful and active instead of giving into loneliness, and to wait to be reunited in the afterlife. The poem is example of her inspirational occasional verse dealing with the death of a loved one.
Known as the poet laureate of inspirational verse, Helen Steiner Rice often wrote of deep religious faith, briefly alluded to in the phrase, “For a little while” in the second line of the poem. This dovetails with the closing lines of the poem, “And never, never / Be afraid to die, / For I am waiting for you in the sky!” – references to loved ones reunited after death in heaven.
Following in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti – author of such devotional poems as “When I Am Dead, My Dearest ” and “Remember” – Rice’s speaker hopes that her survivors don’t mourn long, asking that they not “shed wild tears / And hug your sorrow to you / Through the years.” Instead, the speaker asks for her sake that they “live on and do / All things the same,” and on days when they’re feeling lonely for her, stay busy and be productive to honor her life.