Patient Loss, an Emotional Journey for Physicians 

 

As a society we’re pretty removed from death. We don’t really talk about it. Yet when medical students start their training, it suddenly becomes something they’re intimately acquainted with. So how are doctors taught to deal with death? 

There are volumes written about the ways that doctors cope with death. It is a deeply personal experience and coping mechanisms vary as widely as the doctors themselves. Many want to be supportive of the grieving family while protecting themselves personally from the death.

It is important to be compassionate but not extremely vulnerable to the emotional toll that deaths can exact. At best, coping with death is a paradox that must be faced regularly by physicians. Finding a way to cope is essential.

We had the opportunity to speak with Trauma Surgeon, Jeffrey Taylor on how he deals with the emotional stress of losing a patient. 

“There is a heaviness that we all feel — all the doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists feel. And sometimes we think, wow, how do we do this regularly?

Taylor’s coping mechanism is a mental attitude developed over 20 years in medicine: The only way to get through it is not to say, ‘These are my failures, these are the patients that died’. Rather, if you say. ‘This was the situation given to everyone, and these family members are the ones who have the opportunity to live on and celebrate the deceased for the rest of their lives. Helping family members see the beauty in celebrating life, helps me feel like I can make a difference in helping them move on. I think it’s good to feel a range of emotions. People become doctors because they care about human life and want to help people. I think it’s a natural reaction to have a range of emotions when someone you want to help dies. I don’t think it would be good to ignore or suppress that. I prefer to acknowledge it, think about it in context, and reflect on what could have been done differently.”

We also asked Dr. Taylor if he could share in more detail about the coping skills, he finds the most helpful, he told us he has three simple skills he teaches his students to help bounce back from witnessing loss. He calls it his TCT method.

1. Tell the truth: Be completely honest with the patient and their families about the patient’s condition. Help them to anticipate what is going to happen and make the patient as comfortable as possible.

2. Convey empathy: Communicate bad news in a private area; not a hospital lobby. After the death, ask what you can do to help the family with the grieving process. When communicating with the family, be aware of your body language and word choices. Treat everyone like they are your family!

3. Talk to someone: If you are rattled by a patient death, find someone to talk to about it. Never harbor your feelings inside. Otherwise, your emotional state may affect your judgement when treating other patients. 

I think the main take away from speaking with Jeffrey Taylor, MD is that death is an inevitable part of life and this is particularly true for doctors who must deal with it on a regular basis. But occasionally it can have a negative effect on the mental health of doctors, who should not be embarrassed to seek help when they need it, and to make use of the counseling services that are available. Any doctor can be taken by surprise by how they are affected by a death and should know that it is entirely acceptable to feel this way. To us at Pacific Companies, physicians are some of the strongest humans we have ever met. We are thankful for their strength and our honored we get to give back to physicians daily, by helping guide them through their medical careers.