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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.

This means as much to me as I hope it does to them. When a bereft family member asks, “Did she suffer?” I’m able to answer, “We controlled her pain, but you helped us to lessen her suffering.”

But how can I be present with my patients and their families in the midst of this pandemic, when we must stay apart? This goes against everything I learned in medical school about caring for patients. How do you stay close to others in a time of social distancing?

How do you grieve in the age of Zoom?

One unexpected insight came to me while I was attending my first virtual funeral. The ceremony celebrated the life of a revered professor who was also my close friend and collaborator. A gifted diagnostician, and a medical sleuth who would have made Sherlock Holmes envious, he cast a long shadow in his chosen field, pathology.

It was hard to fathom the loss of a dear colleague. Did a lifetime of hard-won knowledge simply vanish? One answer came from those whose lives he’d touched.

At the funeral, my friend’s trainees and colleagues joined many others who’d assembled online to say what he’d meant to them. It felt odd being connected to everyone online while also knowing that we were spread out across the globe.

It was only thanks to Zoom, that technological marvel, that we could meet in such numbers. But our group’s large size, coupled with the fact that everyone was using their video cameras in order to be visible onscreen, made the internet access erratic.

During two separate eulogies, the person speaking suddenly froze–then dropped off the screen for good. It seemed an ironic metaphor for the event that had brought us there.

No one seemed to be familiar with the etiquette appropriate to the occasion; it was just too new. We spent more time answering the various speakers’ entreaty, “Can you hear me?” than we did listening to their eulogies.

Whenever the audio went down, the Chat box would light up as we all sought to carry on with the ceremony. We spent more time trying to manage the connection than we did on connecting. “Go on mute,” some urged. “Turn off your video,” insisted others. Nothing helped–until we finally all left the meeting, then logged back on.

Fear of COVID-19 was of course the main force keeping us apart from one another. Among us all, there was already a large reservoir of loss. Many had experienced pandemic-related complications that went beyond health concerns: job loss, financial stress and social isolation. Others felt a heavy burden of worry about childcare or eldercare needs. They wondered how much more difficult the future would be if schools remained virtual. Everyone was longing for a cure or a vaccine.

All of this strain seemed too much to bear.

Despite the ceremony’s shortcomings, we did finally come together as one community. I felt this especially strongly when the deceased man’s family members spoke. Making no mention of the technological glitches, they described instead how they felt buoyed by our virtual presence: “Coming together comforted our family.”

Hearing their words bolstered me, too.

We are social animals, I reminded myself, and we are resilient. This way of grieving is only temporary. Someday soon, we will be physically together again. We will gather in person to bid farewell to someone we cared about.

Day by day, that reality draws closer as COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available. Fewer lives will be lost–and when such a sad loss does occur, it will bring us together and into each other’s arms for comfort and consolation.

This is ample reason for hope.

Ethan Dmitrovsky, an oncologist and scientist, is president of Leidos Biomedical Research and director of the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research. He previously served as department chair of pharmacology and interim dean at Dartmouth Medical School, as chair of the board of scientific counselors at the National Cancer Institute and as provost at MD Anderson Cancer Center. “An avid reader of the history of science and how science serves the public interest, I began writing a dean’s column while at Dartmouth. I went on to write essays for the general public.”


9 thoughts on “Grieving in the Age of Zoom”

  1. Ethan, Thank you for sharing your thoughts on isolation and community in COVID times. This is such an important subject for reflection, and you’ve helped me realize that Zoom has been a gift in many ways. Just yesterday I attended a friend’s retirement party by Zoom, along with a hundred others. This was someone I worked with 30 years ago, and he is retiring from a med school 1000 miles away from where I currently live. People attended from all over, including his son who lives on the other side of the country. There was a special intimacy despite the limitations of the technology. All this would not have been possible without Zoom. Perhaps when this epidemic is over, we can find ways to have our cake and eat it too–in-person meetings but available to people who are far away.

    1. Ethan Dmitrovsky

      Dear Warren,
      Thank you for your comment. I am glad to hear from colleagues like you and to know about your friend’s retirement party. Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Dear Ethan,
    My sincere sympathies at the loss of your friend. Loss is never easy, especially now. Thank you for sharing about your experience and for providing words of hope.
    Mary McQuillen

  3. Hussain Shaffi

    The article has expressed the true reality we are facing at the time. I can personally relate to this article as I recently witnessed the tragedy of losing my brother who was like a father to me. It was painful to see everything virtual. I never imagined I would be facing something like this in my lifetime. I hope the pandemic will be soon be over and we all can touch and hug each other in time of need.
    Best wishes
    Hussain Shaffi

  4. Ethan Dmitrovsky

    Thank you for reaching out after reading my story. I am grateful to receive your comments and especially glad to hear from my colleagues Don Kollisch and Dana Grossman.
    Many thanks.

  5. Ethan, I was so pleased to open up today’s “Special Edition” email from Pulse and to see your name at the top of the message as the author of this powerful piece. I attended my first Zoom funeral two weeks ago—as it happens, also for someone in health care: the school nurse at Thetford Academy, someone who had touched countless teenagers’ lives in very meaningful ways—and your account is spot-on as to both the drawbacks and the rewards of this way of connecting.
    All the best, Dana
    P.S. How nice to see the comment from Don Kollisch above, too!

  6. I’m grateful for the internet. Thanks for sharing yet another story on its usefulness when more is impossible. I hope to see the unmasked face of a friend in person in the reasonable future and hug with no worry. Right now, that ease of communication seems almost surreal.

  7. Donald Kollisch

    It is wonderful to know that you’ve continued to write after leaving Dartmouth. Many thanks for all of your inspiring ideas and actions.
    Warm wishes,
    Don Kollisch
    Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth

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