How to Comfort

The text message arrived late on a Saturday night: our patient had died. It was the on-call fellow letting the rest of the team know that her passing had been peaceful and beautiful. The news was expected; the only question had been on which of a handful of days it would occur.

The message flashed onto the screen of my phone, catching my eye as I sat in my living room drinking wine with my husband and a pair of close friends. I stopped midway through recounting some story that I now cannot recall. I felt my entire self – face, posture, spirit – deflate.

“One of my patients just died,” I said, covering my face momentarily as a few tears spurted out. Then I took a deep breath, wiped my eyes, and resumed the story that I had been telling. After all, this death had not been a surprise, and our friends had come from another city to enjoy time together, not to ruminate on the sadness that comes standard with my job.

“Um,” my friend interrupted, gently touching my arm. “Do you want to talk about your patient?”

“Oh,” I sad, because suddenly it became the most natural thing in the world to share with them. “Yeah, I guess I do.”

I told them about the person she had been, about her kindness and enthusiasm and how I knew that I was a better person for having known her. Her disease,  the ups and downs, and the pain and eventual decline didn’t figure in this story; just the loss to the world that she was no longer a part of it. My friend squeezed my shoulders as I talked and cried, and our husbands, sitting on the couch opposite, listened with respect and empathy.

“May she rest in peace,” I finished, raising my glass. Our earlier conversation resumed its original course, though the mood remained somewhat subdued. My own processing and grief would of course continue but had clearly benefited from that first acknowledgement and release into the world.

Grief and loss are challenging, uncomfortable things, and their pervasiveness and inevitability render us no less eager or equipped to meet them. But I know that this process would have been unfolded differently – and specifically been more difficult – had I repressed my emotions as I was initially inclined to do. My friend gave me a wonderful gift by inviting me (prodding me, really) to confront and share.

Maybe it’s because she has suffered significant personal loss and remembers what helped her the most, or maybe it’s because she is incredibly empathetic and I am lucky to have her as a friend. Either way, she didn’t do that much; she didn’t say special words or make some big intervention that took away my sadness. She didn’t try to find a bright side or a silver lining, nor did she try to assign the experience some type of meaning or cosmic purpose. And she didn’t diminish or try to dampen my grief or encourage me to cheer up or move on. She just acknowledged it and invited me to let it into the space that we shared. She was there, and she let me – helped me, in fact – be exactly where I was. And that was everything.IMG-1071


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