The grief in the room

Walter Canter shares two poems and a micro essay on grief and the struggle of sorting out personal pain as a pastor.

Depressed senior man sitting on the hospital bed alone at night, he feels lonely and abandoned


The seventh year







pruning vineyard,








respite from


far from Jubilee

is nothing but labor.


How long?

How many times, feather flat white pillow?
How many times, beeping machine with blue, red, green numbers?
How many times, TV remote <slash> phone <slash> call system on a cord?
How many times, bleached paper thin sheets?
How many times, tower holding liquids
Connected by tubes and needles?

How many times, unidentifiable clicking sound?
How many times, hand sanitizer solution foam?
How many times, crusted chapped lips?
How many times, rolling eyes that don’t quite focus?
How many times, holes in arms with
Puffy veins and swollen fingers?

How many times, death moan down the hall?
How many times, tempting button of the magic drip?
How many times, wire thin nasal feeder?
How many times, rolling the long tray away?
How many times, on the edge of a bed
Or the chair pulled close?

How many times, cold hands limp in mine?
How many times, prayer for comfort?
How many times, mumbled vocals?
How many times, sagging neck skin?
How many times will I sit in this room
And watch you die?

My body grieves in time and questions

In Leviticus, God instructs the people to observe a year-long sabbatical rest every seventh year, and a year of Jubilee and liberation every fiftieth year. On the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death, I wrote a poem — short, broken, stretched, slowly written and hardly connected. My grief did not decide to take a yearlong sabbatical. I was still working toward feeling wholeness, and the poem’s shape reflects those feelings of barely holding it together.

My mother died a year before I was ordained as a pastor. She died four months after my stint as a hospital chaplain, where I learned from experience and overexposure how to be a calming presence in the presence of death and grief.

In the hospital, my assigned ward was telemetry oncology. I spent my days sitting with cancer patients, talking with the ones who could, sitting silently with some who couldn’t, listening to family members who trickled in or stayed steadfast next to their dying loved one. I sat with them in that hospital, a full day’s drive away from my mother who was fighting the same disease in a different state.

In our training at the hospital, we were taught how to keep our own grief separate from the grief of those for whom we cared, how to acknowledge what is our own emotion and how to identify the emotion of the other person. I would sit with the dying. And I would hear my mother’s experience told to me through other women’s voices, and I would press into their experience, their emotion, their understanding. I would hold my own emotion elsewhere, tell myself I was feeling the same emotion, but in a different state.

But my grief was there, even if I pretended it was elsewhere so that I could be more present with the person I was caring for. It was there. In those hospital visits and in deathbed visits that would follow, my own grief met the grief of others. Every experience, in its own unique way, raises the emotions and questions of my own loss. The eerie similarity of each hospital death down to the smell and the lighting led me to shape a poem that is a spiraling question of lament. The poem’s dulling repetition hides the presence of my personal grief until the last line, where I finally admit that my own grief is in the room as real as the white sheets and morphine drip.