When Doctors Grieve

I know we haven’t touched upon this topic in class yet but the concept of grief interests me simply because it’s different for every person. Some people like to openly discuss feelings and memories while others tend to remain quiet and keep their emotions to themselves. Grief also differs depending on how the person died. Were they ill for years or were they a victim of a tragically fatal car accident? When a loved one dies, one focuses mainly on either their own grief or the grief of their family. However, what about the doctor that cared for your ill grandparent? How do you think he feels? The grief doctors experience usually goes unnoticed but these doctors have spent long hours slaving away at curing the patient and have gotten to build a personal relationship with them and their families so it’s only fair that they have a right to grieve their patient’s death as well.

I found this article “When Doctors Grieve” that was published in the New York Times last May very interesting because it is a topic that isn’t discussed often and because I am an aspiring doctor. A study was done on twenty oncologists concerning grief practices when one of their patients died. Over half of them reported feelings of “self doubt, sadness, and powerlessness”. Many added that they felt guilty and would often cry and lose sleep. However, most of these oncologists fought to hide their emotions because it is seen as a sign of weakness as a medical professional. Surprisingly, the death of a patient oftentimes effects the behavior of the doctor and the treatment practices they perform on the patient. One doctor stated “I see an inability sometimes to stop treatment when treatment should be stopped.” This results in more aggressive chemotherapy treatments. Another aspect of this article which was of most interest to me was the idea that as a patient gets closer to dying, the doctor tends to distance themselves from the patient and their families resulting in an overall less effort toward the patient. I think this is because the doctor does not want to become too attached with the patient and develop a relationship with them because when they die, the doctor becomes affected by this both emotionally and professionally. The author of the article believes that doctors should be trained to handle their own grief and I agree. A great doctor is one that can compose themselves and carry on with their life while coping with the loss of their patient.

The article can be found here: (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/opinion/sunday/when-doctors-grieve.html)

Jared Siegel

3 responses to “When Doctors Grieve

  1. I think our society sometimes depicts doctors as those super heroes who save lives and rarely, if not never, fail our expectations. Mass media has tried to show another side of the story by featuring doctors in shows and movies, but too little has done in reality for us to resonate. The truth is: doctors probably have seen more ‘failures’ than any of us. I do not mean personal failures of their skills, but a failure in medical advancement, our failed rejection to mortality. Anyone who has been trained to achieve some goals and not accomplished them, no matter why that happened, will experience a sense of inadequacy. For doctors, the cases can get even more personal with some patients in lengthy hospitalization. Those feelings are unhealthily silenced by doctors because of social expectations in them. Not only shall doctors get necessary therapy or group sharing to help them release the suppressed emotions, but the public shall also acknowledge the plain human side of doctors. Though they may have faced deaths many times in their career, the encounter does not necessarily get any easier.

  2. Erin Paige Robinson

    I think the doctor-patient relationship is unique in that it is a very intimate but yet somewhat distant and impersonal at the same time. Doctors are privy to very personal information about family and personal backgrounds because this information is often medically relevant. With the trust that is accompanied with this information a relationship between doctor and patient is formed…. it is only natural that the doctor would grieve for a patient that has died. Another interesting point that could add to this is the feeling of responsibility that a doctor might have for the patient’s death and how that aspect may affect their grief. Doctors undoubtedly witness a lot of death during their career; I think a natural defense is for them to separate themselves emotionally from attaching to their patients. It would also be interesting to expand this study to see how nurses may handle the death of patients as well, may times they are the ones that spend the most time with patients and their families.

  3. Javier Alonso Pavas Martínez

    Good Morning. My name is Javier Alonso Pavas, I am an internist doctor, I am a Master in HIV and I am currently in the III Semester of Masters in Bioethics at the El Bosque University in Bogotá – Colombia. I am carrying out a research work on the Grief from the point of view of the Physician who attends chronic patients, in terms of which the health professional also performs a grieving process that often does not have an adequate development generating problems in the autonomy of the Patient and probably conflicts in the patient physician relationship. I would like to know if in your institution or in your practice have some kind of documentary support or professional advice for the type of research work like the one I mentioned and if so, what are the conditions of access. I am very grateful for the attention and collaboration you can give me.

    My contact details are:
    * Email: javier [dot] pavas [at] gmail [dot] com
    ** Cellular 057 3106885232

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