Words For Grief

Words For Grief

Words For Grief 150 150 Nathaniel Lee Hansen

You have found it difficult to write these last days. Not because of the usual culprits: fatigue, sickness, student papers.

You have listened to so much more music, especially Hammock’s Departure Songs. You have listened to an interview with a writer-friend from another state, a state where you once lived, and for those 15 minutes you felt transported, out of your grief, and into a state where you would land 2 days later. You’ve taken photos on your phone, more than you usually do. Something about the simplicity of images.

You have turned to the words of others, friends’ comments on posts, Facebook messages, texts from your wife. You have turned to the words of your students expressed in their emails, including this line: “I wanted to let you know that I have been praying for your family these past few days.”

You have returned repeatedly to the closing lines of one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets:

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

Yes, you’ve experienced the power of literature before, but not quite in this way. These 17 words, their fierce declaration, soothe you more than you thought possible.


Your wife’s text from Tuesday morning, from before your morning class, informed you that your father-in-law’s ventilator was being removed. That he was being given morphine.

So you arrived in your classroom minutes later, trying to think of how you might address these 30 students. You hardly know each other. It is only the second week of the semester. So you tell them what your wife told you. That your father-in-law is not long for this world. You tell them that you’re flying out on Thursday, that you’re not sure if the class will meet or not, if you’ll have a sub.

You teach the class, you push your way through, a second day of poems from World War I. So many grim poems. But you keep it together. You just keep pushing ahead. It’s not one of your better class sessions; you know this. A few moments you consider just stopping altogether, apologizing, and dismissing them. However, you have a strong sense of “duty.”

When you return to your office, you check your phone to find that your wife has sent some photos. Those images crank open the gates on the dam that you have constructed to control the surging waters of your grief.

You begin sobbing. You close the office door. You know that a colleague’s door is open next to yours. You hope she won’t hear you. So you manage to control the volume. You’re grateful that no one else seems to be around.

You can’t fathom what it might feel like to your wife, to your mother-in-law, to your sister-in-law, to your brother-in-law. You only know that your head throbs, your throat is so tight, that if it were possible for your heart to literally break that what you’re feeling would have to be the start of that breaking.


So this morning, the day of your father-in-law’s visitation, you ran that familiar stretch of county blacktop, the sun having just risen, the air crisp at 55, the sky so expansive, the corn and soybean fields spread out on either side of the road, you began thinking through these things.

You knew it was time to write these things down. There are others who are hurting. You know how the words of others can offer comfort, can offer respite. You have your duty: to write all this down before it slips through your open palms.


Nathaniel Lee Hansen

I’m a poet, fiction writer, and essayist. My chapbook, Four Seasons West of the 95th Meridian, was published by Spoon River Poetry Press (2014). My work has appeared in Christianity and Literature, Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland, Blast Furnace, Driftwood Press, Whitefish Review, The Cresset, Midwestern Gothic, and South Dakota Review, among others. I currently serve as an assistant professor of English & Creative Writing at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas. I also edit Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature and direct the annual Windhover Writers’ Festival. When not writing or teaching, I run, read, play piano, listen to music, and play disc golf. My greatest joys are my wife, my son, and my daughter. I was born in southern Minnesota, but while growing up, I had little interest in the Plains and opens spaces. A stint at a rural state liberal arts college in southwestern Minnesota, as well as grad-school stints in northwestern Minnesota and southeastern South Dakota, altered my interests. @plainswriter, plainswriter.com, & www.facebook.com/plainswriter

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