When Patients Die

Death is a part of life. A corny way to start an article, but still true nonetheless. This is especially true when one is in the medical field; whether it be a dramatic “Code Blue ED” or a casual mention of little Betty in bed 123 passing in the night, we are all exposed to one of the biggest taboos in our Western culture on a daily basis. How do we learn to cope with such a traumatic and triggering event; to go home and not think about the family crying around the body, the silence of the room, your arms aching from compressions, your mind trying to think of what to say to comfort and to help but just standing there silent? This comes with time, experience, and a lot of dark humour, but for us new to the profession it can be a jarring and incredibly emotional experience.

I know for a fact that I have cried at the hospital after a patient has passed away. I sat in the cafeteria with a cup of coffee, called up my mum, and cried. I felt like a failure; weak and pathetic and not cut out to be a doctor. But this is not something to be ashamed of, nor is it something to hide from those around us. It is not overdramatic to get attached to patients, and it is not a sign of weakness to feel loss and grief when they pass. And yet this is the kind of culture that seems to be pushed amongst doctors and medical students, to move on quickly and forget about it and remain cold. A protective mechanism most definitely, but one that is damaging and perpetuating the toxic culture that breeds mental illness and leads to a frighteningly large number of physician suicides every year (commentators on the issue have stated that the number is over 300 in the US alone).

This needs to be something that is not only brought to the attention of medical students and doctors, but to everyone in the healthcare industry. Those who care for the sick are often the ones who need the most care themselves (apologies again for the corny lines), and this needs to begin at the beginning of the medical journey. It needs to be brought to the attention of senior doctors and healthcare professionals, to the students, and to those who love and support those in this often cruel and challenging field; otherwise the mental illness epidemic amongst hospital workers will continue to fester and grow.

But I digress.

We need to foster an environment where people are allowed to express their emotions and be human. I am not talking about having people break down in front of a patient, but more a community that allows us to talk and discuss and cry if needed rather than one that puts people down for caring and makes jokes of their feelings. Hopefully with the increase in anti-bullying policies, inclusive workplace schemes, and a larger focus on the emotional and sociological aspects of patient care, we will see an environment that promotes healthy attitudes towards emotion and ultimately better patient care.


The Funeral of St Jerome, as painted by Filippo Lippi between 1452-1460, showing a group of monks mourning over the death of St Jerome. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from these guys about healthy ways to show emotion.

Source: By see filename or category – http://www.wga.hu, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7918285

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