Dealing with my patients’ losses. And the losses in my own life.

My patient sat in front of me, silent.  She was a beautiful, elderly woman, always well dressed in bright, matching outfits, and not a single hair out of place.  Her lipstick was perfectly applied.  She normally had a quick wit, joking about how she might drop a few knickknacks from my office into her handbag on her way out.

Not today.  Today her tears flowed.  Today was the day she grieved the loss of her husband of fifty-six years.  Today was the day she questioned whether she had done enough for him at the end.  Today she wondered whether she had said everything she wanted to say.  Today she wished for just a little more time with him.

On the table between us rested a small plate, full of rocks and stones I have collected along the way.  Many of them are engraved with a single word, like “love” or “courage.”  She leaned forward and touched the rocks, one by one, as she cried.

“Would you like one?” I asked her, breaking the silence between us.

I had never given a rock away before.  They were simply there for patients to hold during their appointments if they so desired.  I had been taught of course that psychiatrists should not give gifts to their patients.  This somehow seemed different.   I reached for one that said “strength” and handed it to her.

No, not that one.  She sifted through for a few more minutes, until she found the one that felt right to her on this particular day.

The rock she chose said “miracles.”

Just in these last two weeks, I have been aware of loss, feeling it in my patients, and also feeling it reflected in my own life.  Loss of life, loss of vitality, loss of health, loss of loved ones.  I can’t quite put words to the feeling that loss brings to me.  It is a bittersweet ache in my chest, a sudden inability to breathe, the weight of tears behind my eyes that aren’t quite ready to fall.

Just as I cannot find the words to articulate my own experience of loss, I often find myself struggling for the right words with my grieving patients as well.  I don’t pretend to know what to say.  I don’t try to make it better.  Instead, we ask questions together, we search for answers together.  I help to hold the weight that is too great for one person to bear alone.  We sift through time and space, the haze and disbelief and fear and loneliness.

Sometimes we just sift through rocks.

It is just as painful for me to deal with loss in my own life.  And yet, even when I get lost in the storm of my own grief, I eventually realize that it is bringing along a message for me.  It is loss that reminds me of the necessity of conscious living. It is the inevitable, unpredictable loss of all that is to come, that reminds me that there is no moment more important than this one, no matter what it brings.

Being a psychiatrist doesn’t grant me any magic powers that make coping with loss any easier.

But …

Being a psychiatrist blesses me with the ability to realize that we are not alone on this path — that loss is a necessary and important part of all of our journeys.

Being a psychiatrist allows me to believe in the healing salve of time and compassion and witnessing.

Being a psychiatrist allows me to witness miracles as my patients one day come out the other end of deep, profound pain.

So today and in the weeks and months ahead, I invite you to consider where loss is palpable in your own life, or the lives of your loved ones.

How and where do you feel loss in your life?  What message is it carrying for you, if any?

Monisha Vasa is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Monisha Vasa.

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