June 1, 2022ISBN: 978-17370545286 x 9 in142 pagesPOETRY / Death, Grief, LossPOETRY / Women AuthorsBIO & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / People with Disabilities

Whispers From Her Deathbed

A Posthumous Poetry Collection

by Janavi Held

Edited by Catherine L. Schweig

2023 SILVER NAUTILUS BOOK AWARD WINNER in the category of Death & Dying / Grief & Loss Poetry

RUNNER-UP WINNER in the poetry category 2022 Pencraft Book Awards for Literary Excellence

This collection of poems, bravely and vulnerably, chronicles Janavi’s journey, —in beautiful, poignant phrases— as she lived with a painful, chronic illness, that, inspired her to dive deep into her core.

The book, edited by Catherine L. Schweig, features cover art by talented Illustrator Landis Blair.

All proceeds from the books go toward the Janavi Held Endowed Poetry and Art Grant established in her memory. 

“This part of myself was not a gentle breeze, but more like a hurricane that would have its way, regardless. I would have to follow wherever it led me.”


“In Whispers from Her Deathbed, Janavi Held invites us to meet our own mortality as she meets hers. ‘I embody what no one wants to know,’ she writes, yet some of us hunger for these poems that blossom out of that ‘inner flower garden’ at the boundary of life and death. These are courageous poems, poems that listen, poems that question, poems that beg for, and deliver, mercy.”

ROSEMERRY WAHTOLA TROMMER, author of Hush and Naked for Tea

“‘Endless todays, endless todays.”  How richly giving these words are! We experience today as having a finite beginning, middle and end, but strung together, you end up with a duration unfathomable in its breadth and depth. Or, was Janavi pointing to the eternity in one day, in each moment in time —  the eternal as our inheritance, our birthright, the beacon of our conscious journey through life? Of the many gifts that this book offers, I would like to highlight this: the stark brilliance with which Janavi held in her fiercely brave, fragile soul the contradictions and paradoxes of life and living, and the healing to be found in exploring doubt and wonder, suffering and transcendence, the material and the divine. With each poem, I feel I am holding Janavi’s hand as she whispers to me a story that is deeply personal, and sublimely universal. Janavi lived her shortened life with her eyes wide open, soul on fire, and heart ever-expanding. It is our infinite fortune that she left us with a masterful blueprint for how we might do the same.”

TAMMY STONE TAKAHASHI, author of LAND and Yoga Healing Love

“Janavi Held’s final yet eternal mystic words spoken through Whispers from Her Deathbed transform the reader to wind tracing the shapes of soft trees, to flowing and undammed holy river— her namesake. ‘And the river restless, running, shocking cold to tree roots who rest and reach to her…’ It’s as though she reaches for us from the other worlds, waking us from the mundane existence of living on earth, into actual LIFE. From the physical painful prison of her dying body, her transcendent spirit sings the ancient wisdom of ‘the turning stars… the geometry of flowers, the creativity of earth’s design, the personalism of trees, and the humility of grass growing like freedom.’ She begs those of us who hear her to continue to find beauty in the struggle of human striving, to search for light in the seemingly endless darkness, to know that ‘love owns eternity and nothing more,’ and to know that our Sister is finally Home. ‘She is a river full of mercy and feminine waves… she cannot be contained by dams. In her, sacred dancing myth and true stories collide. Bravery lives in her waters, and kindness washes up on her pale shores.’ Janavi is held only by the Infinite now. In these poems, she sends ‘a message through the chains of time and space... I am speaking freedom/ I am inside freedom/ my life sits inside the palm of the universe… If I have loved beyond reason, will you still remember my name?’”

—KAI COGGIN, author of Mining for Stardust, Incandescent, and Wingspan

JANAVI HELD (1965–2018) was a dancer, photographer, yogini, artist and poet born in Brooklyn. After struggling with chronic illness for years, she became bedridden in the last years of her life. During this time, Janavi immersed herself in artistic and spiritual growth. 

Janavi passed away at the age of 53 in Colorado, leaving behind a voluminous oeuvre spanning across various mediums of expression.

Catherine L. Schweig, editor, founded Journey of the Heart: Women’s Spiritual Poetry in 2012, an online project from which five anthologies emerged, the latest titled Goddess: When She Rules (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2018). Catherine was a very dear friend of Janavi’s, who communicated very closely with her in the years leading up to her demise. Catherine serves on the board of the Janavi Held Endowed Poetry and Art Grant. She and her husband live near the Powhatan River, and together mentor students in ahimsa living via ancient yoga psychology and philosophy.


Janavi was named after a river. “My namesake flows through a land I have never seen, but which feels like home to me…” Here, Janavi speaks of a tributary of the world’s largest and most fertile river delta: the Ganges Delta—originating in the snowy mountain tops of Tibet and Nepal, flowing down through Bangladesh and India, and finally, emptying out into the Bay of Bengal. Janavi continues: “…She cannot be contained by dams. In her, sacred dancing myth and true stories collide.” 

On the shores of “myth and true stories,” Janavi’s artistic spirit flowed forth from her heart, most uninhibitedly, as a mighty river of poetry. In the last fifteen years of Janavi’s life, literally hundreds and hundreds of poems broke her dam. One of the main catalysts for this roaring outpour was, as she put it: “Having an illness that brought me close to death…” 

The ancient and exotic story surrounding Janavi’s namesake tells of a wildly flowing, celestial river that was temporarily detained in the cosmos. When the river finally splashed down to Earth, she did so with such exuberance that her waters inundated the sacrificial grounds of a great sage, or rishi, known as Janu. Unsettled by this, Janu—of mystical might—swallowed the whole river in one sip, trapping her once again in his Himalayan cave. 

But the river—then known as the Ganges—wasn’t meant to spend the rest of her life swirling inside Janu’s cavernous body. So, she escaped through the sage’s ear, rushing down the mountain in several streams, so no one could ever again stop her flow. That day, the Himalayas appeared to grow long white locks of hair, as the river’s whitewater rapids trickled down the mountain’s sides, sustaining all who drank from it. Henceforth, the mighty river was also known as ‘Jhanavi.’ 

In the spring of 2004, as Janavi completed her thirty-ninth year, her health dwindled to the point that she had to lay to rest her dream of pursuing a career in dance. In digging a grave for her budding dance career, Janavi experienced a dramatic existential shift within herself, which she describes as such: “…my perspective on life had been profoundly altered, and I was becoming aware that no matter how safe staying-put may seem, I would not be able to continue. I felt something pushing from the inside—a voice so certain that I had no choice but to follow along.” That inner catalyst moved Janavi to sell her studio, give away most of her belongings, and lend herself entirely to healing, to communing with Nature—which she related to as “the highest expression of The Divine here on Earth,” and to following her creative impulses, which emerged, primarily, as poetry: her life’s breath. 

Janavi’s poetry wasn’t only the breath that sustained her in her final years, but, ironically so, also a beautiful and brave death narrative, through which she learned to embrace dying, as a natural and integral part of life. For most of us, the exact time of our death remains a mystery. For others—especially those with chronic, potentially terminal illnesses, like Janavi—death’s shadow often becomes a companion, a reminder that our existence here is fragile and fleeting.

The fragility of Janavi’s health condition, and how she coped with it, gracefully spilled into her poems as we hear her praying “for sleep on endless nights”, feeling alone, “longing to be reassembled,” and calling out to a divine surgeon from her sickbed: “You are my surgeon, for I am ill—sick with the disease of eons… I hear Your surgeon’s tools rattling in the dawn shadows.” 

The “disease of eons,” as per the Vedic texts Janavi treasured, was the illusion that though we see everyone around us dying, we resist pondering our own inevitable death. To ancient indigenous cultures around the world—like the ones sustained by the River Jahnavi in India—denial of death, or fear of it, was regarded as a highly undesirable state of being, frequently described as a tight flower bud refusing to blossom, or stagnant water unable to flow. Janavi’s mighty river of creativity was anything but that! And the plethora of poems she left behind is an inspiring testament to that. 

While putting together Janavi’s posthumous poetry collection, I drew primarily from poetry Janavi composed over the last fourteen years of her life, as she struggled with the insidious illness that plagued her. With guidance from Janavi’s own poetry files—and the meticulous manner in which she had organized them—I dove into the oceanic body of work she left behind, (including four completed chapbooks) and surfaced with 65 carefully selected treasures, in a nod to her birth year: 1965. 

The book’s title, Whispers from Her Deathbed, was borrowed, in part, from the title of one of Janavi’s unfinished poetry manuscripts. The collection is divided into three sections, which, Janavi described as such: “Time and how it relates to nature, how time influences our bodies and our social circumstances, and the perception of time and how it influences our spiritual evolution.” Janavi drew the theme—on time and the subjectivity of time—from a verse in the Bhagavad Gita, where exploring time, paradoxically, illuminates what it’s like to exist outside of time. A journey which ultimately carried her beyond “landscapes of flesh and steel,” toward how to understand “the original stuff we are made of.” 

Lost in time, in the changing sky outside her bedside window in Colorado, Janavi exclaims in one of her poems, as she dictates into her laptop: “I didn’t know that time could drag on like this, through pain.” When the passing of time becomes synonymous with pain, the two merge into one very powerful teacher, with whom Janavi became very close. Shaped, as such, by her never-ending experience of pain, Janavi’s poems spontaneously became a dialogue with pain, and time, and, also, with death—as the point in time when her intense physical pain would end.

In the last poems Janavi wrote, she expresses having been “chased by pain” for years, and in “Pain’s Purpose” reveals a longing for what she calls “the restless sweetness at the end of time.” In her final poetic offerings, Janavi speaks of wishing for wings, soaring through “mists of bright clouds,” bathing in moonlight, drinking in the dust of stars. She pictures her heart filling with “ancient light” as she looks… “down at the swarming earth, but never…back.” Then, in the poem Janavi titled “After”—which was shortlisted for the prestigious Hamilton House International Poetry Prize, and appeared in their anthology titled ‘Eternal’— Janavi simply asks: “After death, what?

I know a fresh tomb awaits me
among a host of tangled vegetation.
I know that my superstitious heart
lives among trees and fading flowers.

In the last four months of her life, Janavi reached out to both friends and family, and at other times appeared to push them away, as she withdrew into the ancient Sanskrit texts containing the story of her namesake. There, she resonated with the words of Queen Kunti, known for enduring indescribable pain. In the end, it was this pain that moved the queen to compose 26 poetic verses in which she wishes for her focus to shift from her own inescapable painful circumstances to the Divine. Janavi’s favorite was: “O Lord of Madhu, as the Ganges forever flows to the sea without hindrance, let my attraction be constantly drawn unto You, without being diverted to anyone else” (Bhagavat Purana 1.8.42).  

As Janavi understood it, this mysterious sea that unfolds entirely beyond time’s perimeters is eternal space, “where all speech is song, and all walking, dance” (Sri Brahma Samhita, 5.56). And a place she inevitably begins nearing, in her poetic, ontological stroll past the dualities of living and dying. In the pages that follow, you’ll encounter the musings of Janavi’s very youthful and exuberant spirit: naturally longing to dance, yet confined within a painful body that inhibited dancing. This juxtaposition between forces of restraint vs. urges to release, is a theme woven throughout Janavi’s poetry, as it was in the genesis story of the River Jahnavi, who continues giving of her waters, to this day.  

In her own story, Janavi lovingly imbibes her namesake, leaving us—and future generations—to quench our thirst at her river of poems, expressing: “…I realize that the best kind of dying is that dying which gives new life to others.” In writing unapologetically about her imminent demise, unwilling to compromise the course of the creative rivers that rushed from her heart, Janavi also gifts us an opportunity to let our own tight buds blossom, our stagnant waters flow. 

Today, as you drink from her river of poems, you may discover that Janavi’s honest poetry doesn’t try to be pretty, and yet, it is, in its straightforwardness, especially, as we hear her whisper a final wish to us from her deathbed: “I want the cool embrace of sacred rivers flowing on my skin, the dancing of peacocks… true friends chanting of eternity next to my ears.” And, perhaps, if we listen carefully enough, we may also hear her finally flowing into the tranquil sea. 

Catherine L. Schweig
Newport News, Virginia