I try to go to my patients' funerals because they are profound and humbling experiences.
I was looking forward to honoring my recently deceased patient by attending the viewing before his funeral the next day. I parked my car, and paused for a moment before I got out. This happens every time. I suddenly have this fleeting thought that I did something wrong, and that when I see my patient’s family they’ll be upset at me because he died. I remind myself that no, this gentleman lived a long and happy life, and based on my telephone conversation with his family member after his death, they are at peace with everything. Still, I can’t shake the feeling, and I walk into the funeral home a little apprehensive. What if they’re mad at me?
I walk into the room and can’t help the tears that well up. Inside, about three dozen people are there honoring him, and though you can feel there is loss, there is also a tangible warmth celebrating his life. Even though I only know his wife, I instantly feel welcome. She introduces me to his two children, and to one of her friends. I show them the photo of my daughter holding the stuffed animal he gave her that she loves so much. I sign the guest book. And I take a moment to say two prayers: one for his family, and one as a prayer of thanksgiving for having been fortunate enough to have been his doctor.
As modern physicians, we can’t help but think of death as the enemy. I think I handle death pretty well, but there’s still this subconscious doctor voice in my head that tells me I’ve failed. It sometimes tries to keep me from going to the events that honor my patients’ lives. But still I go, as often as my schedule allows. Why?
1.) I go to honor the person.
In many cases, they were my friend. We had a relationship that has now ended, and acknowledging that ending is healing.
2.) I go to support the person’s spouse or other loved ones.
In a few instances, when I have lost a patient, I have also cared for his or her spouse. This is actually really helpful, as I can more formally support them through their grief. For those who aren’t my patients, this is a chance to say good-bye and to show to them that taking care of their loved one mattered to me.
3.) I go for myself.
I do it for the above reasons, and because it is a profound and humbling experience that physicians can take part in. We can’t fix everything. We make mistakes. We are only a small portion of a person’s rich life. And we should feel lucky to have been able to have made a small difference in it.
I encourage others to think about how they want to honor a patient when he or she dies. It might be to go to the funeral, or it might be to send a card signed by you and other staff who are part of your team. But whatever you decide, don’t let the little voice of doubt keep you from doing it.