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Confronting a Colleague’s Loss of a Child

It’s too painful to confront a colleague’s loss of a child.
Three or more decades ago, we physicians had more difficulty dealing with death and dying than in more recent times. But it is still very difficult.
We are particularly at a loss when it comes to the death of a physician’s child. And it is even more challenging when it is a colleague, a member of the hospital staff’s child who has died.

I recall two such experiences, both of which took place when my own children were young. One colleague had an only child who suffered a fatal head injury associated with a sports activity and did not receive timely and appropriate care. Another colleague had a son who died in his teens of a malignancy.
I was not a close associate of either of these physicians, but seeing them up close in the cloakroom felt extremely uncomfortable. My efforts to avoid them made me feel even more.
In each case, I finally approached the colleague to express my sympathy. I started with saying something along the lines of “I feel the urge to avoid you, and to look the other way when we pass….I cannot imagine the pain and suffering you’re experiencing, please accept my heartfelt condolences.” Or: “I cannot imagine losing one of my own children, and I can’t imagine how devastating the loss must be.”
Both physicians’ responses surprised me. Despite how haltingly I’d expressed my condolences, they each thanked me profusely for approaching them. You’d think that I was an unusual healer, with the empathy and compassion of a Gandhi, a Christ or a Buddha.
After these exchanges, I felt much closer to these physicians. I also felt so much better for having confronted my discomfort and my desire to avoid the subject.

Joseph Fennelly
Madison, New Jersey


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