You Don’t Know You’re Grieving

(Until You Do)

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.

copyright: gdolgikh/123rf Stock Photo

copyright: gdolgikh/123rf Stock Photo

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  • A patient’s family got their wish of being present when supportive care was withdrawn.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.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “You Don’t Know You’re Grieving

  1. Debbie, I recently attended a Celebration of Life Picnic for transplant recipients and donor families. It been five year since my liver transplant. Of note is how many donor families come back and celebrate the life of their loved one through sharing stories and contributing squares for a quilt honoring donors. Many of these finished quilts are hung up for us to look at an remember. Remembering is that part of the grieving process that goes on. In the storytelling world we think that a person’s life continues as long as we tell their stories. Isn’t Harriet Tubman still with us?

    • Steven, thank you so much for contributing to this discussion and for adding your personal experience. I love your addition of the importance of storytelling. Narratives are sadly lacking in health care encounters right now. I know that stories and quilts are both areas of expertise for you, and I’m glad you’re able to use these for healing grief in yourself and others.

  2. I recently felt overwhelming grief when my son’s birthday came this August. Jason passed away on October 2, 2015 from a failed surgery to remove a massive AVM from his brain. Jason suffered 5 or 6 strokes and was not expected to make a meaningful recovery. I did what I had to do and made him CMO. I stayed with him for 2 1/2 weeks as he wasted away and finally passed. I returned to work in November and buried myself in my work. I think that I can truly bury my feelings very deep from working in critical care for so many years. We bury our emotions to keep on surviving and helping our patients. The grief came bubbling up as Jason’s birthday came and I remembered that on his birthday, he opened his eyes and followed commands for the first time since his surgery. Our hopes for his recovery was a reality that didn’t last long. The moral is that grief can surface at any time.

    • Brenda, thanks for sharing such a personal story. This has been my experience, too, that grief sneaks up on me, and it has its own unpredictable timeline.