The Mourning Wake-Up Call: It’s Okay to Grieve

Even when you know someone is dying you are still surprised when they die. 

While it is certainly true that we, as a culture, need to become more comfortable talking about end-of-life care and death, all the talk and preparation in the world will never fully prepare us for death. As a future doctor, I know I must come to terms with patients dying, but I hope that I will always feel a jolt of surprise when it happens.

In medical school, a large part of our education comes down to logic. Logically, we can understand the progression of a disease and the different stages of treatment; we can understand that, eventually, all treatment options may be exhausted; we can understand that there are limits to what the body can heal. While we learn a lot in medical school, we do not learn that logic will not armor us against emotion. 

Logic isn’t to blame for the common practice of burying emotions deep down. Instead, that blame often falls at the feet of fear. 

I fear feeling too much. 

I fear being broken by sadness. 

As physicians, we are expected to wear a sort of mask for our patients and their families: the mask of professionalism. We must be the calm in their storm. We cannot let ourselves grieve openly. But when that time has passed — when we’re alone with our thoughts, and that mask comes off — please grieve. Allow yourself to feel shocked. Let that stinging shock open up into an ocean of grief. It will not swallow you whole. It will not break you. It doesn’t mean that you did not understand what was coming. It does not mean that you are a bad doctor. In fact, it means the opposite. It means you care. 

There is never a good time for someone you care about to die. It is only natural to grieve such a loss. Thankfully, it seems that the perception surrounding physician grief is slowly changing. 

In the past, grief in the medical field has been viewed as shameful and weak. Today, with the rising awareness of physician burnout and suicide, it is clear that something needs to change. There are many factors that contribute to burnout and suicide, and physician grief after patient death is undeniably one of those factors. Resources that allow physicians to grieve and seek counsel are essential to the well-being of physicians, their patients, and the health and well-being of our communities. 

Physicians that are unable to cope with patient loss may alter their treatment plans for other patients. When death feels like failure this would seem nothing short of predictable. If you lost a patient as an oncologist, the overwhelming pressure to treat other patient’s more aggressively with chemotherapy in the future — to do anything to prevent another “failure” — isn’t hard to understand.

Improve the quality of end-of-life care by allowing yourself and your fellow physicians to grieve. 

Of all the lessons I’ve learned in medical school, the knowledge that it is okay to grieve is one of the first I’ll pass on. I encourage all future physicians to carry that same lesson; carry it as you would carry an emergency first aid kit. In the end, that lesson could serve as a life saver for one of your future colleagues. That lesson could be a life saver for you. 

Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.
— Earl Grollman

Magdelene May

Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd Year (OMS II)

Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

Magdelene May