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It Was Grief Speaking

We sit in a clumsy ring
under fluorescent lights,
halfway into the allotted one hour
before we realize that we are having
a conversation born a whole decade ago.

He leads us to the day he died
and began again, unwillingly
made wise to the depth that a scalpel may cut —
through the skin and muscles
of his second youngest daughter,
all the way into his own heart.
To describe the gash it left
as a remnant is too forgiving; he bleeds,

I will lose no more,
he suddenly interrupts to yell,
silencing the interpreter without imprint
on the doctors’ charge
and their many synonyms for the word,

The third time he repeats himself,
his face is dry
and broken
and cold —
no more.

Outside the room,
we turn right
as he turns left,
and the projection of his grieving soul
paces the room
to play out the allotted one hour.

No surgery is scheduled
for the little boy down the hall
who crouches over a toy car,
running it over bumps in the carpet
and waiting for his father.

Author’s note: This poem was inspired by a family meeting I witnessed on the wards between medical staff and the parents of a little boy who was recommended to undergo a prophylactic splenectomy. The staff’s goal for this meeting was to educate the family on the long-term benefits of a prophylactic splenectomy for their son with the help of a local interpreter. They believed that the parents’ initial refusal of the surgery was due largely to a language barrier and lack of understanding of their son’s condition, especially because the family was a refugee family who only recently immigrated to the United States. They hoped that this meeting would change their minds. Ultimately, it did not. Despite multiple explanations of both the child’s condition and the operation, the family continued to refuse.

It was not until halfway into the meeting that the father revealed they had previously lost another child to a surgery in their country of origin. Underlying the family’s hesitancy was not ignorance of the information they were being presented; it was a deep sense of fear breeding mistrust not only in what surgery entails but also of those of us who wear white coats. The staff members were so frustrated by the family’s refusal up to this point, however, that the piece of information was lost in the conversation. They continued to emphasize their previous points on the mechanics of disease and operation, and as the room grew increasingly tense, the family became closed off to further discussion. Everyone left the room feeling frustrated, and the staff later deemed the meeting to be “unfortunately unsuccessful.”

From my perspective as a student and an observer, I wish that more had been done to address the family’s loss, a vulnerable piece of their history that they only seemed to reveal out of a sense of necessity. Perhaps a pause on the ongoing dialogue to empathize with the family’s grief could have re-built a sense of connection and established a new sense of trust in medical professionals. Adjusting the staff’s approach to recognize that the parents’ position was one derived from trauma might have more effectively preserved the channels of communication. For me, the experience was a hefty reminder of the value in reactive and empathetic listening during difficult conversations.

Image credit: Dylan and his Car (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Extra Medium

Poetry Thursdays is an initiative that highlights poems by medical students. If you are interested in contributing or would like to learn more, please contact our editors.

Sharon Hsu (3 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Albany Medical College

Sharon is a third-year medical student at Albany Medical College in Albany, New York. In 2017, she graduated from Siena College with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology. Sharon's interests include health promotion, bioethics, and the use of medical humanities to foster healing and connection in both patients and providers. She enjoys doing yoga, painting, and running in her free time. After graduating from medical school, Sharon hopes to serve underresourced communities both domestically and abroad.