This week, our hospital again held Schwartz Center Rounds. The topic was organ donation, and we discussed the families of the donors, the pride in the legacy of passing life onto others through death. We discussed the unbearable waiting for the transplant recipients and their families, waiting that ended with either grief or gratitude, sometimes both.
The panel was made up of both Gift of Life and hospital employees, all with very personal stories to tell.
- A husband died on the transplant list, but his teachings lived on in his wife and daughters.
- A patient’s family got their wish of being present when supportive care was withdrawn.
- A young couple agreed to let their 5-month-old son be a donor.
- A family was honored with a flag signed by all who cared for their donor family member. The flag flew over the hospital for 24 hours to let the community know of this man’s heroism.
One audience member had participated in a Gift of Life event, preparing a meal for family members of patients on the transplant list. She was overwhelmed by the burden that these families carried while they waited. She was surprised that she got choked up as she spoke, ambushed by her feelings.
But that’s the nature of grief, especially for healthcare workers. We tend to stuff grief down instead of processing it, so it sneaks up on us at unexpected and unwanted times. When I read one of my poems at the World AIDS Day memorial service, I was surprised at the depth of feeling that was still there after so many years.
I did a major grief processing only after I had been seeing patients for about twelve years. I started crying as I combed my hair in the morning. Was it resentment at overwork, or lack of sleep? Yes, but also, a patient had just died. Not my first patient to die, nor the last. But the first one I found myself grieving for.
A friend, into integrative medicine, suggested I try a process called Transformational Breathing to help dissolve the long-held grief, not just for this one patient, but for many. My attitude toward alternative medicine is largely a pragmatic one. I’m willing to investigate outcomes for the ones that do no harm.
While I’m sure I don’t fully understand the philosophies behind the doshas of Ayurvedic medicine, or the energy meridians used in acupuncture and Chinese medicine, these models are sometimes useful ways of looking at the world. Chinese medicine practitioners say that grief is processed through the lungs.
Transformational Breathing turned out to be guided, intentional hyperventilation. It was an unusual way of altering consciousness, to be sure, but safer than many others I could have tried. The point is, I felt the process to be immensely helpful.
The tool I’ve always returned to though, is poetry. Recently at hospice team I read this amusing, disturbing poem by Donna Masini, called “Slowly”. It likens taking grief into the body to a rabbit being swallowed whole by a snake. Like I said, we healthcare workers tend to stuff grief down without processing it. Donna Masini said it better. “How slow the body is to realize. You are never coming back.”
Question: What’s been your experience with grieving the death of a patient or of a client? Are you still waiting to be ambushed by your feelings? Share your story in the comments below.