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Editor's Commentary on "A Death in November"

 , September 10, 2019

In this poem, Shah introduces us to a story in the critical care unit that captures an unexpected moment of contentment. She takes us on a journey of what it means for a family when the goals of care align with the family’s and patient's goals. End of life discussions are not easy, especially in the critical care setting. There can be underlying fear when there is an unknown factor in the decision, with both families and physicians wondering—was there something more we could've done? Did we miss something? When a physician brings up the possibility that all that could be done in the name of curing disease has been done, there can be tension or even a sense of guilt. Perhaps they can do more. The sense of not knowing is unrelenting: "I've seen months of indecision, / families paralyzed by fear, / because they've never had to see / a death from so near."

 "A Death in November" is not only about recognizing our limits, but about realizing that death is not the enemy. Sometimes death is relief, the end of suffering, and the end of waiting. She writes, “Instead I saw the joy of a family who knew / what grandma had wanted and all she’d been through.”

 The sense of relief and readiness is conveyed through the rhythm of the poem: “First came a daughter, the very youngest one, / very soon followed by the next older son.” The source of tension is delineated as such, “Conversations rarely happen with the still-living, / with families too often overcome with misgivings.” Readers note the relief when the family is in agreement: “no cause for doubt: / There was nothing but certainty of what tonight was about.” They gather at the bedside and hold hands, knowing that the end doesn’t need to be messy. They chose to be certain in the uncertainty that is death in the hospital. There is peace in knowing that they had no questions left.

 Ultimately, Shah’s poem reminds us that death need not be the enemy. It captures a family experiencing the death of a loved one as a life-affirming affair. The rhymes and cadence lend themselves to a song of serenity, knowing that there is nothing else to be done but be at the bedside. 

Esther Lee