I see a lot of grace too. For the person who is dying, I have seen them literally reach out and console their family members and friends: it’s a real role-reversal. Not everyone, some people fight to the end. But I’ve seen a lot of grace and that is so touching. It’s a transfer of energy, that’s what I see. Some people don’t want to know that their life is short, and they want to deny it, but you can only deny something you know. So, loss of some things is inevitable, and it’s transformed into something else.
What practical things help you to deal with loss?
So, loss, as we understand it is about loss of function, social connections, cognition, independence, possibility, identity, roles in the family.
For me, there’s an inevitability about it, so our challenge is how can we make it the best for this person, and I think a big part of that is listening. What I find is I might be asked to see someone, and I’ll be told about all the real dramatic life events that this person has experienced, many, many sad stories. I’ll be apprehensive when I go in but the best way for me to deal with it is to go and sit down and listen. That’s the most peaceful thing I can do.
For me not to confront the loss is more distressing than confronting the loss and doing that alongside people. So, I’m a real ‘joy germ’. For example, I might meet someone who says ‘I might never be able to walk again’, and I’ll say ‘I think you’re right’, and I’ll sit beside them and say ‘that’s really lousy.’ And we’ll sit in the silence together and see what comes up. And that’s holding other peoples’ loss. Helpful for them, but also helpful for me. Sometimes you do everything you can, and then there’s the chance to just sit with them.
I know people will be sad. I know there will be healing. And I know there will be remembrances. Things will find their place.
What gets you through experiences of loss?
Sharing. There’s nothing in my era of becoming a doctor that encouraged me to share my experiences, acknowledge my weaknesses or ask for help. You find yourself thinking, I have to hold it all in and the buck stops with me. But I know that if I share things with people, it’s so much better. Even a little bit with a friend or colleague is helpful. Doctors are a funny breed, we’re all about responsibility. Nurses are good at communicating with each other; they have their own networks.
Just over the weekend I noticed a group of nurses talking about how it was for them looking after a patient who needed ‘turning’ in their bed. It was just good to hear them talking about their struggles. Their talking was like when we anoint a wound; it assists with the healing.
Sometimes I invite myself in to help the nurses. If they need an extra pair of hands turning a patient for instance, I’ll say “Will I do? Can you coach me about what to do? You’ll need to tell me.” I think as I’ve got older, one of the things I do to cope, more and more, is I do what I feel makes sense or feels comfortable to me, so I’m treating me by being beside the nurses, by witnessing what they witness, so that I know what they’re dealing with.
This also helps me with making decisions about pain management.
I’m also someone who likes walking by the beach, completing jigsaw puzzles, putting on my music or listening to a podcast. I’ll happily enjoy those things for a couple of peaceful, quiet hours. It helps to restore me. Light and water, that’s what really helps.