“Let the Candles Speak”

When You Meet Someone Deep In Grief

by Patricia McKernon Runkle

Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.

Enter barefoot 
this darkened chapel

hollowed by loss
hallowed by sorrow

its gray stone walls
and floor.

You, congregation 
of one

are here to listen
not to sing.

Kneel in the back pew.
Make no sound,

let the candles 
speak.

From The Path to Kindness: Poems of Connection & Joy.
Storey Publishing, 2022.

Patricia McKernon Runkle’s simple words call us to be as present as possible with another person, to recognize the sanctity of this space we share with someone who has recently endured a loss of any kind. She asks us to see the “hollowing” of grief as a “hallowing” as well, deserving of reverence. With its shorter lines and many pauses, the poem makes us feel as if we too are entering the “darkened chapel,” step by slow step, toward the person who needs us, and she reminds us, most importantly, that we are “here to listen not to sing.” When sitting with another who’s in mourning, we might think it’s our job to try and fix things for them, to make the other person feel better. Yet often what we most need from a companion on the journey is their deep presence, their willingness to enter that place of mystery, confusion, and pain with us. That’s the greatest gift we can give to another during a trying time, and it’s essential to point out that Runkle’s poem also works in another way: we can just as easily take her advice when we meet ourselves in the depths of loss. At that time too, all we can do is listen deeply to the self and its needs, leaving all expectations for outcome or a quick recovery at the door.

Invitation for Writing & Reflection: Write about a time when someone showed up for you, or you showed up for someone else during a difficult loss in their lives. How were you able to offer compassion, and how were you changed by that experience?