Physician Grief: Is integration better than compartmentalization?

17.09.2018

originally published August 2018 on Doximity's Op-(m)ed blog.

An oncologist colleague once said to me at a funeral, “People assume that as oncologists, we understand more about death than other people.  But we really don’t.”   He then faced a church filled with mourners and delivered a heartrending eulogy.  I’ve thought of his words often since.  Every time I counsel a patient and family on hospice, or make a bereavement call to a family, I think of his words of wisdom -- about our lack of it.

Because, compartmentalize—isn’t that what we’ve all been taught to do, since day one of medical school?

But why? Is it really the best way?  Who does it really benefit?  Us?  The patients?

I recently shared a personal story on not compartmentalizing emotion and grief in this narrative essay published in JAMA.  Personal experiences made me think perhaps there’s another way.  A different, less rigid way.  Maybe, it could be better for our emotional health as physicians not to strive for such hard-line compartmentalization.

And I did something I hadn’t done in fifteen years of oncology.  I grieved with my team.

How?  Our team gathered together—doctors, nurses, support staff, even administrators—and with the guidance of our social workers, shared what we were feeling about recent patient losses.  We listened to each other.  We cried together.  I allowed my team to see a vulnerable side of myself, the one that had been told since medical school never to show herself, or else.  But, or else what?  Because here’s the thing -- nothing bad happened.

Good things happened.  Both social workers thanked me afterward for my candor and “being willing to show emotion” in front of the team, because, they said, it gave the rest of the team permission to show their emotions too.  Wow, I thought, does that mean before this grief session, my team didn’t think I felt the same things that they did surrounding patient loss?  Really?

Then I realized, it’s because, from our first days of medical school, we’re conditioned to hide our emotions away, to suppress and conceal.

And because I hadn’t ever spoken to my team about my grief over patient losses before, they assumed I didn’t experience it to the same degree.  Kind of made me feel less than human.  Which is definitely not the way I want to be perceived by my team.  (Or my patients).

From the numerous emails I’ve received since the essay publication, there are lots of us who find this a struggle. (and though I’ve tried to respond to you all individually, I want to give another thank you here to everyone who took a moment out of their busy lives to write to me).

Because of the outpouring of contact I received, I tried to search more on physician grief and the compartmentalization strategies that most of us use, and were, indeed, trained to use, either implicitly or explicitly, since our medical student days.

(Please note this is not intended to be an exhaustive review of the subject in a mere 1200-1500 words).

I was somewhat disheartened to find that things aren’t necessarily any different now for some medical students and residents than twenty years ago.

In this 2016 blog post,  a pediatric chief resident describes being told by another physician that she had no right to grieve the death of one of her patients.  Thankfully she found assistance and was able to work her way through her grief, and concluded:

In a 2016 paper on how medical students share their emotional experiences, the authors concluded that medical students shared their emotions with other students and family and friends, but not with their mentors or faculty.

Some of us, perhaps not given the resources or tools in our training, end up seeking out help from our palliative care colleagues.  In an Art of Oncology essay in The Journal of Clinical Oncology, Dr. Andrea Watson, a pediatric oncologist, writes,

I can tell you, sitting with my team and sharing those feelings of grief, was hard.

At one point, I came very close to faking a call I had to take, in order to escape the sadness filling the room, from within and without.  Because it would have been so much easier to walk out, to instead put back on the persona of the busy doctor—too busy to grieve—and leave those feelings behind.  You are staying, I told myself.  This is your team. You will stay.  And so—reluctantly, uncomfortably—I did.

And after a minute, it got a little easier.  And then another minute.  And another.  And reluctance and discomfort were replaced with gratitude and connection.  And the sadness was still there but we were all sharing it, instead of trying to furtively shoulder it individually.

And afterward, if some of the team looked at me a little differently because I had cried in front of them, was that a bad thing?  Did they see me as less, or, dare I say, more?  I was wrung out, drained, like a sponge squeezed dry, but it made me feel more human, not less.

In a personal reflection in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, Patel Leena wondered,

When she solicited opinions about whether it was ok to cry in front of patients, some told her it was ok, whereas others told her flat-out never to do it because it indicates a lack of control.  Nevertheless, she persisted in her interest in palliative care:

Reinforcing the value of expressing grief as a team, and to cite something outside oncology, this recent paper in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, reported on the benefit of a team ritual in the ICU after patient death, “the sacred pause.”  Seventy-nine percent of respondents (a mixture of doctors and nurses) believed that the ritual brought closure and helped them overcome the feelings of disappointment, grief, distress, and failure after the death of their patient in ICU.

If you don’t work in an environment where you could do this as a team, you could do it for yourself.  Take a moment for the sacred pause, where you simply allow your feelings to exist.  In a call room.  In your office.  In the elevator.  In the car on the way home.

Because emotions are real.  And human.  And really, what would the alternative be?  In an insightful essay, Dr. Patrick Sullivan, a family medicine physician, wrote:

In conclusion, I would like to quote from this essay in Academic Medicine, To See the Suffering, in which Dr. Rita Charon , general internist and literary scholar at Columbia University who originated the field of narrative medicine, wrote:

In other words, to integrate, not compartmentalize.  No superhuman wisdom required.  Just be human.


What do you think about compartmentalizing versus integrating?  What resources did I miss?  Do you or your team have a ritual you use to cope with grief?  Please comment.


Suggested further reading and resources:

How physicians cope with patient death.

Permission to Grieve? “What's Up With That?”

Mixed-Methods Study of the Impact of Chronic Patient Death on Oncologists’ Personal and Professional Lives.

Barriers and facilitators in coping with patient death in clinical oncology.

Survey of Bereavement Practices of Cancer Care and Palliative Care Physicians in the Pacific Northwest United States.

Gender differences in the effect of grief reactions and burnout on emotional distress among clinical oncologists.

Grief symptoms and difficult patient loss for oncologists in response to patient death.

Oncologists’ Protocol and Coping Strategies in Dealing with Patient Loss.

Image copyright: Rainbow umbrellas photo by David Barajas on Unsplash

Article last time updated on 17.09.2018.

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