7 reflections on grief and personal loss as told by a medical student

Being a medical student during your clinical years imparts a certain feeling of invincibility. For many of us, this is our first-time taking care of patients. Our history-taking and physical exam skills are being honed like superpowers. Our clinical knowledge is growing. We begin to take ownership of patients as our own.

With all but two clinical rotations left in my third year, and at the peak of my own feelings of invincibility, my dad died.

I showed up for my call shift the next day.

At the time, it seemed the most reasonable action to take as a third-year medical student. It was also the first time I cried in a hospital. I saw the daughter of a dying patient on my service a bit differently. Seeing her at his bedside was different now that my dad was gone. Dealing with loss has and always will be difficult, but being a medical student during your clinical years makes it even more of a challenge. Our professional identities as physicians are still being formed—how we grieve and deal with loss are parts of this identity. Medical education and training do not always prepare us for these moments.

Over the past month of my own journey, I would like to share 7 of my own reflections:

1. Your shift is not more important than your wellbeing. Taking time to process loss is difficult and messy and imperfect.

2. Medicine has never been about textbooks and practice questions and standardized tests; it has always been about people. People that deserve your best efforts to save them, but also for you to feel their loss if the time comes.

3. It is easy to emotionally detach yourself from a patient’s experiences. In those moments, empathy is a necessity. Do not let death and grief steal your empathy, your kindness, your ability to love your family, and to help someone else’s.

4. Do not let yourself to be hardened by loss that you forget the power of feeling. Those very emotions make you human and a much more caring physician.

5. Extend yourself the same compassion and patience during this time as you would recommend your patients if they were in a similar situation. You are entitled to your feelings; you are not invincible. It is okay to grieve your family members; it is okay to grieve personal losses. Your patients are personal losses. You can cry. You will.

6. Ask for help when you need it. Or, if you’re like me, you will have a supportive group of attendings, residents, students, and friends that will force you to leave and take care of yourself. Rely on your classmates and other members of your support system.

One day you will be the resident, you will be the attending, and you will deliver this news to someone else’s daughter. Remember that we can use personal loss as an opportunity to inform how we care for and empathize with those we care for.

7. Lastly, take time to find peace—for your sake and your future patients. Processing loss while providing care to others is a superpower that we all need.

Tasia Isbell is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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