My experience working as a physician has been is bittersweet: I’ve witnessed the magic of new life and have offered hope and healing to patients in their darkest times. I’ve also seen intimate dances with death, disease, and illness that has opened me up to the experience of physician grief. From a career level, I’ve experienced elation, joy, and passion surrounding my day-to-day; but I’ve also felt the realities of physician burnout and the subsequent heartbreak that comes with having to leave a medical practice because the health-care system too often fails both patients and doctors.
While many understand grief primarily as the emotional roller-coaster following the death of a loved one, it comes in many different forms. I’ve felt grief for patients and grief for my career, alike. And when the world shut down last year as the COVID-19 pandemic quickly spread and the grip of fear took over our day to day lives? We all felt collective grief, even if we didn’t recognize it as such at the time.
What I’ve found, in all my experiences of navigating physician grief, is that in order to face it, we must first name it. Running from grief does no one any good, and by embracing the bitter moments, you can more closely hold onto the sweet ones that coexist alongside them.
Below, find three tips to help you navigate those bittersweet moments—whether you’re contending with physician grief, or some other form as a result of an emotionally taxing job.
1. Allow yourself to feel all the feelings
Grief isn’t a single emotion. It brings sadness, anger, frustration, and regret. It also triggers positive memories, bringing on waves of nostalgia and joy. Holding multiple emotions at once can be overwhelming, to say the least. And what do we do when we’re overwhelmed? All too often, we run.
Running can look like suppressing emotions and acting like a robot, focusing on everything other than the reality of how you feel, or feigning positivity when you feel like crap. I’ve personally used work to distract myself when I’m avoiding my feelings. Sometimes doing so can help to take the edge off while the initial shock passes, but buried feelings don’t stay buried forever, and at some point, you have to process.
So, acknowledge and name your grief—no matter what form it comes in. Lean into the complex feelings so you can work through them. If you don’t take active steps to heal those wounds, they’ll stay open and fester.
2. Break up the day with “grieving windows”
A core experience of grief is watching the world continue to move, which is disorienting because even when you feel like time has stopped, deadlines continue to come and bills still need to be paid.
Allow yourself at least three 20-minute “grieving windows” throughout the workday to be fully present in your feelings while you’re healing.
One way to practice self-care as you navigate physician grief or any other form of grief that requires you to continue operating in your normal life (though “normal” may be the last way to describe how you feel) is to establish “grieving windows.” Allow yourself at least three 20-minute periods throughout the workday to be fully present in your feelings while you’re healing.
Feel where the grief expresses itself in your body. Is it your head? Your chest? Your insides? Connecting with your physical feelings will help keep you from going numb or letting all the emotions build up.
3. Ask for help
Let those around you know what you’re going through. If you feel comfortable doing so, be honest with your boss and colleagues about what’s going on so that you can help them help you. When it feels like we’re drowning, we need to know that it is more than okay to look outside of ourselves for help. The simple act of talking—to friends, to family, to professionals—creates connections that make us stronger and help us through the hardest parts of grief.
More importantly, being honest helps to universally normalize the grieving. Whether we like it or not, every single person will have to contend with grief someday, and by being open about what you need and how you’re feeling, you’ll do your part to shed light on what can otherwise be an isolating experience.
While it’s easy to look at the phases of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and embrace them as measured steps towards closure, reality often looks much messier because we don’t experience grief linearly. It loops back on itself and is constantly triggered by everyday events, so if we don’t face our feelings and unpack them, they get too heavy and weigh us down. Hiding from feelings of anger, sadness, and fear can manifest these emotions into issues of burnout and depression.
While facing the feelings grief—at work or elsewhere—may be difficult, there will be moments of solace tied to the sadness. You will hold the bitter with the sweet. If you’re grieving, it’s because it meant something to you. Honor that love by taking care of yourself while you heal.
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