Grieving in the Age of Zoom

Oncologists like myself are no strangers to death. It is all too familiar. We give our patients the best that medicine has to offer; we cure them if we can. When our efforts fail, we relieve their pain and ease their suffering. And when they pass away, we grieve. With their friends, colleagues, family members, partners and spouses, we grieve.

Almost by definition, a time of mourning is a time of gathering. Both to grieve and to console, we must be present with one another. I try to be there for my patients and their families and to answer all of their questions with candor and concern.

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The Lightest Blue Eyes

Seventeen years ago, I was a senior psychiatry resident, moonlighting on weekends in the psych unit at a small rural hospital. Usually the unit was quiet. In this remote corner of northern Canada, we were taught to value resources and avoid “unnecessary” psychiatry admissions.

Arriving one rainy Friday, I headed to the ER to let them know I was there. Among the mostly frail, elderly patients, one person stood out: a healthy-looking woman in her early thirties, about my age.

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Meatballs and Hot Pink Scrubs

As a third-year medical student, I did a month-long psychiatry rotation in a large urban psychiatric hospital. I’ll never forget my first patients there: Christian Mitchell and Sabrina Smith.

Christian, only in his thirties, looked about sixty. He had the coarse, bushy beard of a mountain recluse, and his hair was similarly overgrown, with bits of unidentifiable debris tangled within.

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Found Down

I keep having this dream where I’m trying to call 911, and I can’t. I can’t seem to get the phone to work. I become panicked, and I can’t breathe. My heartbeat pounds in my ears, and I feel the sharp taste of bile in my throat.

When I wake up, that shaky feeling of fear and impotence clings to me. I don’t ever remember what was wrong in the dream–why I needed to call 911. I just remember not being able to.

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El Jugo Me Hizo Daño

February 2010:

I toss and turn in bed, trying to fall back asleep; I have only a small cushion of time between getting up and heading to the hospital. I’m a third-year medical student doing my medicine subinternship. I have the choice of going to work or staying in bed a little longer.

On the other side of town, Ms. Garcia doesn’t have much choice about heading to the hospital: She’s bleeding from her nose and rectum. Standing in a puddle of blood, she calls 911.

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Living on the Edge

“How are you adapting to your diagnosis?” the specialist asked. “What changes have you made in your daily life?”

“I take the phone with me to the barn,” I told her. “That way if I need help I can call.”

She looked at me gently, as one might regard a confused child. Even then, I didn’t expect the heavy blade of her answer:

“There wouldn’t be time.”

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Perspectives on COVID-19: Bonds of Marriage, Part 2

Editor’s note: This two-part series presents the stories of Wim and Jo, a husband and wife whose lives were profoundly impacted by coronavirus (COVID-19).

Jo’s Story

My name is Jo Ann, and everybody calls me Jo. I’m seventy-four years old. I’ve enjoyed teaching grade school for forty-two years and plan to return after COVID-19–if they let me.

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Perspectives on COVID-19: Bonds of Marriage, Part 1

Editor’s note: This two-part series presents the stories of Wim and Jo, a husband and wife whose lives were profoundly impacted by coronavirus (COVID-19).

Wim’s Story

My name is Willem, and I go by Wim. I’m seventy-five years old. I moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, as a young man with plans to go into seminary. That’s where I met Jo, my wife. We didn’t go together too long before getting married. She supported me while I redirected my studies towards a master’s in education. Since then, I’ve taught grade school, worked in school politics and had jobs in sales before retiring a year ago.

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A Real Family?

A few years ago, a Chicago-area fertility clinic ran a series of radio ads at the same early hour each morning. For weeks, I woke to a woman’s energetic voice cutting through the fog of my semiconsciousness, announcing her gratitude to the center’s reproductive specialists. “Without them,” she proclaimed brightly, “my baby wouldn’t have my blue eyes and my husband’s wide smile.”

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