Somehow, I imagined that the physician training process would help me gain greater familiarity with the road to death. In dealing with life and death issues on a routine basis, I believed that I would become comfortable with the most common dilemmas, the many pathways that the mind of a grieving loved one would take, and the right words and means of solace to offer at the right times. However, I realize now that I have focused most of my attention on the experience of the patient: the one who is dying, the one with a biological explanation for suffering and sickness. Like some physicians, I find it easier and truer to my calling to take the hand of a dying man or woman to help ease their suffering and dispel feelings of solitude in the final steps of life. The suffering of a loved one is a trickier and less straightforward matter: he is not the patient, and thus, a physician might not see him as a responsibility (when there’s always another patient to see).
And yet, there is much suffering there to be addressed, to be confronted, to be shared. The pain of a loved one – that which we call “bereavement” in medicine – is commonplace in the mind of the physician. It is so common that we may forget to confront it routinely: it requires no medicine, no surgical intervention, and no billing code. But it is not ordinary in the lives of most people who have just lost a loved one. It is the crushing realization that you will never again hear a person’s voice, see her smile, or share a moment in time with her. It is the moment that makes even the hardest cynic want to believe that there is a better place after this life. It is a place where the emotional turbulence twists and grows more intense, trapped in every memory and reminder of that person, making you want to scream or cry or bang your fist against the table because there doesn’t seem to be any other method of release.
If you truly want to help ease this suffering, there is no formula or set method. It’s true that a single expression of sorrow is unlikely to shorten the time that a person grieves, but it might help lessen the suffering. Everyone grieves differently, and it is always hard to find the right words and the right time to say them or offer a hand or an embrace. However, the important thing, the greatest imperative, is to say something, say anything. Just as you accompanied your patient on the road to some better place, please let her loved ones know they are not alone.