The passing away of a person is always an emotionally unsettling experience. As humans, we are immediately confronted with our own mortality, and no matter how close you were to the person, you think about the relationship you shared with them. Oftentimes, we try to make sense of it; I’ve heard from more than one grieving person (including myself), that everything happens for a reason- and we begin to search for that reason that something like this could have happened. I’ve also been taught that there are five stages of grief in the Kubler-Ross Model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. Today, I watched a family go through all 5 stages in the space of 24 hours- and it was both emotional and enlightening.
The patient was an unfortunate but lovely woman with metastatic end-stage cancer, and this was to be her final battle in a long, long war. I watched as we placed her on Comfort Measures Only, as she gasped for her last breaths, and a few hours later as we pronounced her. It was my first experience pronouncing a patient, and, I have to say, it was…unsettling. I’ll explain- my entire career has been focused on saving people, keeping them alive; having a patient pass away always feels like I’ve failed. Even if they’ve had a long, long war with terminal cancer. And, for all of the time I’ve spent around people, even if they were on the death’s doorstep, I haven’t spent much time with the deceased (I don’t think it’s quite my cup of tea). It’s immediately as though there is a change at the passing- they literally cease to exist so totally that the passing is unmistakable. Then, we were left in the room with the family and (quite literally) the shell of the deceased, and I just could not help but think how completely…gone…she was. I was also surprised at how emotional it was, even as their physician! I mean, my experience, of course, pales in comparison to the emotional roller coaster of the family, but, wow- it was emotional for us, her medical team, too!
It was a tough day but good lessons: the family has already begun to heal. I truly believe that while she was in pain, her family carried all her pain, too. We even got a smile or two out of them- and, of all things, many, many thank-yous (totally and completely unexpected). I was amazed and inspired at their resilience!