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When a Physician’s Grief Spills into Family Time


These are the times, like this weekend, when I lost a patient, when work and life do not separate like oil and water.

This weekend has been rough. In fact, on Saturday I had my worst day as a physician. Ever. I lost a patient, a young patient. I am devastated. When I got the phone call on Saturday morning, I wept.  There was no way to hide it from my husband or my kids. I explained in the simplest terms I could before leaving for the hospital. 

The day was a tough one personally and professionally. I didn’t feel strong enough to be strong for the patient’s family, but I made it through. In part, this was because of other colleagues - physicians and nurses who were clearly upset like I was but managed to do what needed to be done. Seeing others wrestle with their emotions but do their job well inspired me to do the same.

When I arrived home - exhausted and emotionally spent - I fell into my husband’s arms and sobbed some more. This happened in the kitchen with the kids wandering around. Kids happen to be great for snapping you out of whatever it is you’re thinking of. My oldest needed to desperately negotiate a deadline for his book report. My youngest needed parental assistance in fighting the Star Wars Droids that were threatening the toy room. We had showers and bedtime, stories and prayers to do. The business helped keep my grief at bay. My kids didn’t mind when a few tears escaped down my cheeks. It was helpful to be around people who are so egocentric that they take your sadness in stride.

For the rest of the weekend, I kept busy so I didn’t have to think. Again, kids make this easy to do. They force life to go on and will not allow you to wallow in sorrowful reflection for too long. For once, I allowed it to just occur without too much thought. I moved from one thing to the next and fell into bed exhausted waiting to be overtaken by sleep.

These are the times when work and life do not separate like oil and water. Instead they blend, the elements twisting around each other and forming a single whole. I definitely need my professional “family” because they understand what it is like to lose a patient, the grief and doubt you wrestle with, and the struggle to start all over again with the next patient. 

When I have difficult days like I did this weekend, I am so grateful that my home life is full and keeps me busy.  It’s the respite I need for the times my job is just rotten and awful. However, I am also fortunate that the relationships I have with my colleagues are not just professional - there are moments when it’s just one human being there with another human being. 

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