Thursday, February 17, 2011

WHEN PATIENTS DIE


There's a beautiful essay in today's NY Times Well Blog (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/a-doctor-at-the-funeral/) by internist Danielle Ofri. She writes about the pain physicians feel when their patients die, and their discomfort at attending their funerals.

It made me reflect on my practice, which is limited to facilitation of cancer support groups. This work isn't clinical, but emotional, so members, including me, become close…and die regularly. I attend more memorials than most people do. A clerk at a local stationery store recently asked me why I buy so many condolence cards. And I'm often asked, "How do you handle all these deaths?"

I handle it like Dr. Ofri does: I feel punched in the gut. I cry, I'm saddened and sometimes even disoriented. That is, I believe I handle it well.

Doctors suffer as much as anyone else, but there are pressures within practice to restrict their expression of it. Failing to grieve is a path toward spiritual erosion--not to mention ill health--yet that's the only recourse available to physicians who haven't been educated in death-and-dying issues.

The principle that life is impermanent is the foundation of whole religions.. It doesn't sound so great that we'll inevitably lose everyone we love, but on the other hand, recognizing that can impel us to love one another in this moment. As Elisabeth-Kubler Ross pointed out in her classic On Death And Dying, once we choose to stop fearing death, we genuinely live.

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