The sole reason I wanted to write a post about grief is because it is a topic that doesn’t get discussed enough. Grief is something that I, and many people close to me, have had to struggle with over the past few years. But every single one of us is going to have to face grief at some point. Especially as future physicians, we will not only have to deal with grief impacting our own lives, but also grief impacting our patients and their health – both physical and mental. Whether it’s a parent, a grandparent, a child, a significant other, or a friend – we will all lose someone we love at some point in this life. So let’s talk about it.
Grief is awkward.
I remember a couple months after my dad died, I went to the store to get some flowers for his grave. I was walking out with the flowers in hand, and the store greeter said something like, “Oh is it someone’s birthday?”. I stammered a bit and then replied, “Actually they’re for a grave.”
I felt awkward. He felt awkward. The friend with me felt awkward. Here is this nice man, who I do not know, trying to make conversation, and I make him feel so incredibly uncomfortable. I felt bad. But why should I?
I struggled with this. I moved to Birmingham, AL in August of 2014, 3 months after my dad died, and didn’t tell a single person in that city about his death until January of 2015. I just didn’t want to deal with the discomfort that would inevitably follow. But when I told people, it was like a weight was lifted off of me. I wasn’t hiding anymore.
This is probably one of the most important things I learned in the months after my dad died – you can’t feel bad when your grief or your situation make other people feel uncomfortable. Your grief will be a part of you. I became aware very quickly that grief makes people extremely uneasy. Especially if people don’t know you well, they won’t know what they’re supposed to do when the topic comes up. And having lost someone close to me, I still don’t have a better response very often when someone tells me that they’re grieving.
Death is weird in that it happens to people every single day, and yet most people have no idea how to handle it. I had friends who stopped mentioning their fathers to me. I had friends who stopped talking to me about the problems in their life because they felt that they were inconsequential compared to mine at the time. It was just weird. People don’t know how to react because they’re afraid of how you will react. This is an unfortunate, but very real part of grief, whether you are the person experiencing it or whether you’re confronted with someone who has.
Grief is not comparable. It is not a contest.
My LEAST favorite thing about grief that I have experienced is when people compare their losses. I HATED when people who were in their fifties said that they knew what I was going through because they had lost a parent. It didn’t make me angry because I thought my loss was worse than theirs, but just because my loss was different. There was a point where if someone else had told me that they knew what I was going through, I might’ve slapped them. (Side note: they teach us not to tell our patients we “know what they’re going through” for a very good reason.)
I know people my age who have lost parents – some lost their parents suddenly and some lost their parents after months or years of knowing the day would come. These are people my age who have lost parents, and I still don’t know how they feel. I don’t know what they’re going through, and I wouldn’t claim to. Each person grieves differently, and each person’s grief has a value that cannot be compared to anyone else’s. No one’s life is worth more than another’s, and no one’s experience of loss should be lessened.
And besides, who wants to claim that they’re suffering more than someone else? Personally, I’m someone who wants to live a happy, fulfilling, joyful life, in spite of the fact that someone I loved very much is no longer on this planet. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself and end up in a cycle of self-pity and misery. Trying to outdo each other when it comes to the bad things in our lives (or the good things, for that matter – here’s looking at you, med students – ahem grades, STEP, etc.), is not healthy or fun. But I can tell you that claiming that your grief is more painful than someone else’s is NOT going to make you or anyone else feel better.
You are allowed to rant and be angry, but not forever.
The day after my dad died, I yelled at everyone in my kitchen for dropping crumbs on the floor. In those few days after my dad’s death, if anyone did something he wouldn’t have wanted, it made me seethe. You are allowed to be unjustifiably angry at the world – but only for so long.
I pushed this too far in some parts of my life and ended up losing a good friend over it. I quickly moved into the angry phase after my dad’s death, and I spent a good 6-8 months in it. Every tiny thing made me angry, and it truly didn’t help anything.
Anger is normal when you’re grieving, but you can’t stay in that anger forever. You will lose people – people who love you and care for you and want the best for you; those people can only take so much misdirected anger. So be angry, but not to your own detriment. The moment I stopped being angry was the moment that I started to heal.
A piece of advice: for goodness’ sake, act normal.
My birthday was four days after my dad’s death, and the day after his funeral. It was the absolute worst birthday of my life. My entire extended family was in town, and everyone felt the need to stay for my birthday (with good intentions). But no one asked me what I wanted. That being said, what I wanted was most definitely not to open presents in a room with 25 people staring at me the day after I watched my father’s body being lowered into the ground.
What made my day infinitely better was when some of my best friends took me to dinner that night. It was NORMAL. We went to Outback; I ate a plate of Aussie Cheese Fries and drank a beer. Sometimes, I would venture to say that most of the time, what a grieving person needs is for the people around them to treat them like they always have. I wasn’t a different person; I wasn’t completely the same, but I was still Caroline and I still enjoyed a good plate of fried potatoes covered in cheese and bacon.
Grief never becomes easier to deal with, and I hope that never changes for me.
Now that I am in medical school, I am acutely aware of the fact that I will someday be faced with the responsibility of telling families that their loved ones have died. I am also acutely aware of the importance of that responsibility. We are taught all of these ways to “break bad news” and how to use silence as a tool (still working on that one). But I think what we can’t be taught is that we won’t always know what to do in these situations. We might stutter and stammer our way through it. We might feel incredibly awkward. We won’t always know how to address the emotions of the patients or families we speak to, and that’s okay.
Grief is imperfect. It is messy. It is painful. It is new each time we experience it. I think this is the reason why people don’t talk about grief enough – because it’s not a problem we can fix. There is no solution to grief. It is a journey that each traveller will experience differently.
As future physicians, we get the opportunity to experience some of the biggest moments with our patients – the good and the bad. I, for one, never want to get used to grief. I want it to remain messy because people who are grieving don’t need answers, they need healing. I hope that each time I experience grief with my patients, it is heart wrenching and that I never lose the opportunity to respond to their emotions with realness – whether it be a stammered, awkward interjection, a couple wise words, or just a hand to hold.