Several Days Before Christmas

I’m pleased to host Frank Edwards, MD today as he writes about telling a family about the death of their loved one.

I have been in this position, unfortunately, as well. Sometimes, getting the feelings of a healthcare provider is hard to do. I think Frank has done it well with this poem.

It was a little after noon
when the drizzle began.

A truck skidded sideways on a bridge

and overturned.

The driver wasn’t hurt,

but underneath his truck

Lay a car,

roof caved flat,
the driver’s head crushed.

Before setting out,

she had firmly buckled her two young sons
in the back seat.

In the hospital

I examine them:
A few scratches from window glass
turned shrapnel.

They do not ask about their mother

who’d gone straight to the morgue.

Her husband,

at work,
was only told
there’d been a wreck,
his wife was hurt.
When he arrives
a silent nurse leads him
to the room we keep for these occasions.

How to do it?

Introduce yourself.

Not by first name–
use your title: doctor.
It’s pragmatically superfluous now,
the little good you did,
but this a time for shamans.

Start easy.

Your sons are fine,

Not hurt . . .
But I do not have good news about your wife
(Husband, mother, father, brother, sister, friend).
Then shut your mouth for about ten seconds,
sit, lean forward, take their hand,
allow them to poise,
their grief to ripen.

Do not proceed,

I repeat,
do not continue–
until you feel it yourself.

Only then

give the truth.
and do not be afraid
to use the word death.

And as the floor caves in–

sink with them.


Frank Edwards was born and raised in Western New York. After serving as an Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam, he studied English and Chemistry at UNC Chapel Hill, then received an M.D. from the University of Rochester. Along the way he earned an MFA in Writing at Warren Wilson College. He continues to write, teach and practice emergency medicine. More information can be found at

Check out Frank’s novel Final Mercy.

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