Coping with Personal Loss During Medical School: A Personal Experience
Loss. Death. The departed. At peace. Belly up. Kicking the bucket. Six feet under.
Whatever you call it, in medicine (and medical school) we all will deal with the Reaper at some point or another. Some specialties, it happens on a near-daily basis. For others, it can be a rare occurrence. There are many resources on coping with patient loss as well as medical student grief and mourning. However, if you are lucky this emotionally taxing aspect of nature will not strike a personal cord during your medical school years. Personal loss is a whole different beast.
Death is a cultural curiosity. We hold so many ways to talk about death colloquially and euphemistically that a course was even created to explore the taboo vernacular used to avoid direct death talks. Each culture has their views on what is acceptable to talk about, when, how to speak about the dead or dying, and what words to use. Even in medicine, we must attempt to be sensitive as well as culturally literate in order to best communicate with a patient and their family. But even the best training doesn’t prepare you for when the death is of your own loved ones.
I feel few discuss such intimate family matters, especially medical students and professionals. We are supposed to know how to deal with life and death matters, and though nearly a quarter of medical students will deal with personal loss we were never taught how to cope with it. I hope these experiences may help others.
Two Birds, One Month
At the beginning of my third year, shortly after passing the USMLE Step 1 (first board exam) my grandfather passed. It was the first death in my immediate family that hit home. We were very close, and my favorite part of the year was when I would have an occasional break and sneak back out east to visit my grandparents and other relatives.
My brother, cousins, and myself had grown up there: just a short drive from my grandparents home. And even though we all moved away throughout the years (more correctly our parents did and took us with) we would all get together each summer and pick up where we left off. The grandparents home was our “home base.”
It was the one residence that hadn’t changed in several decades. The same home my father and his siblings had grown up in, played in, argued in, and nearly killed each other several times in (as all siblings do). Sitting around the dinner table, the stories we grandchildren would hear of our parent’s childhood were entertaining to say the least. Now, however, the home felt a little more empty. A little less bright.
My grandfather was a great man that taught me many lessons in life. He and my grandmother are also greatly responsible for emotional and financial support during my medical education. Though it may sound cliché, he literally was one of the few people I’ve ever met where the room would lighten up on arrival. Everyone knew him. Everyone loved him. He always carried a giant smile.
Diagnosed with Hairy Cell Leukemia in your 80’s is not a promising outcome. Even so, he held on for many years. He went through several clinical drug trials. In the end, I’d like to think that he won. He persisted for what we believe to be over a decade with the disease (undiagnosed for many years). He was able to watch his grandchildren grow and his great-grandchild, my niece, be born.
The world had lost a great individual, but it was also a joyous time in that he did not have to fight anymore. His battles were over. And after spending some time with the family, I left to begin my first clinical rotation of my third year. The following month, my mother passed as well.
Even a little over a year later it is difficult writing about my grandfather. I’m not sure that I’m quite ready to delve into the spiral that followed my mother’s passing.
That was, though not completely unexpected, still quite a shock. A self-proclaimed “wild child”, even with a life cut short she lived a full life and then some.The support was amazing, both back home and where my rotation was located. I can never thank my friends and family enough for helping me during that difficult time, and my preceptor whom I still had to return a few days later to finish my rotation. Luckily, I still received support there from friends and classmates as the internal roller-coaster began to mellow out.
I learned some important lessons through these trials. I learned just how important that social support system can be. Though necessary during all of medical school, there is not many instances that compare to losing someone so close as a parent (or child). I’ve never been very good at demonstrating gratitude, but I am forever grateful for those that were there for me.
I also realized the truth to the old adage “life’s too short.” Being blessed with a relatively healthy family my whole life, I had always thought there would be plenty of time later on. Time to finish projects. Time to call back that missed call from a friend or family member. I wasted a lot of time stuck in this paradigm. Now, there is more focus on “why do tomorrow what can be done today?”
It is unfortunate that I had to be b!%*h-slapped by fate twice in a months time to begin making today and not waiting for tomorrow. It’s a shame that I avoided family phone calls and events, thinking I could always make the next one. It’s a shame I didn’t call my family regularly, or contact my friends as much as I should have just to say “hi.” I didn’t have the emotional vocabulary to understand the importance of loss. And that is the most important lesson learned.
We all hear these stories, but it doesn’t hit home when it happens to someone else. I know it didn’t for me. But I believe you are smarter than me. I think your wisdom will allow you to learn from others mistakes. Maybe you will better empathize with the next patient or personal relationship that has lost someone. I think maybe, just maybe, you will reach out to someone special in your life right after you finish this read.