May 17, 2013

nearing two years

Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it come to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh. By doing so you will find yourself restored to all your emoluments. - Henry David Thoreau 

     It's been nearly two years since I watched my brother die.  No, that's not quite accurate.  I was an active participant in his process of dying.  I walked with him every step of the way and in doing so forever changed my notion of being a doctor.  As if the stress of medical school wasn't enough.  The first patient I ever took care of was my brother.  The first time I ever had to make those decisions at 3 in the morning without anybody to ask was with my brother.  No one was looking over my shoulder to ensure that I did not make a mistake.  I did not have the benefit of years of experience to aid me, either.  The first patient I ever lost was my brother.  The second patient was nearly my dad.  And I had both at the same time.  I was rushing my dad to the ER on the day of my brother's death AND the day of his funeral.  If that's not enough to turn a man to drink or drug, then what is?

     Through much grief work, much sadness, much therapy, and even medication I have come to accept the following paradox.  While a part of me wishes to be happy again, that part involved in loss will always grieve and dwell in the darkness.  I accept the notion that two mutually exclusive thoughts can be both equally true.  I continue to, and likely always will given my profession, grieve the loss of my brother, and the near loss of my father.  And I selfishly grieve the fact that my career will always be inextricably entwined with those losses.  I can never naively enjoy my training with this knowledge.  Every time I see a patient in horrible and chronic pain, every time I see a patient with a terminal disease, every time I see a patient with existential angst, I will grieve that loss again and again, all the while still hoping for happiness.

     I have been told by multiple people, including grief counselors, that I will be a better doctor for it, that it is a gift.  I can empathize and sympathize on a level that can only be experienced.  But that brutally misses the point, which is the pain still remains in order for that knowledge to exist.  One simply cannot exist without the other.  And in speaking with others who have experienced such traumatic loss, time does not necessarily heal all wounds.  As a soldier who saw all of his friends die in WWI, Tolkien aptly penned, "There are some things that time can not mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold."  So after two years, is the pain healed?  No, it merely ebbs and flows, much like the seasons passing time.

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