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A doctor's perspective on moving through grief

Portrait photo of Miss Ginny Bowbrick FRCS(Gen) FFSTEd

01 Dec 2023

Ginny Bowbrick

Maroon 5 wrote a song called Memories and when asked why, the band’s lead singer Adam Levine said: “This song is for anyone who has ever experienced loss. In other words, this song is for all of us”.

At some point we will all experience grief following the loss of a loved one, learn to adjust to life after and work through those emotions. I wrote about my brother’s untimely death in the Bulletin in September 2023 and described some of my reflections following his loss. I did not articulate in detail how the grief had felt. How it is still so prominent in my life, from the feelings of the loss of my childhood companion, to the loss of our future memories which we will never make. 

woman smiling and laughing with her brother

We are told there are seven stages of grief which include shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and then acceptance which are modified from the Kubler-Ross model of change. On a dispassionate level this sounds like a relatively straight forward process which we just need to work through to get to the other end and back to life as it was before. But it isn’t a smooth journey through these stages and there can be times when you go backwards and feel like you are starting all over again. A song, a photo, an anniversary of something like a birthday for example can all set you back. Bring the feeling of loss and sadness again whilst the inevitable tears flow. Also, I doubt anyone would be the same person at the end that they were at the start without some part of them changing and it is important that we adopt a growth mindset during this process, I think, although easier said than done.

As a society we do not speak of death and bereavement as openly as the Victorians did. Given the high mortality rates in that era with disease particularly in childhood, poor sanitation, low wages and starvation in some parts of society, it is understandable that they more openly discussed death and their ideas of what would happen afterwards. These ideas ranged from covering mirrors so that the deceased’s image wouldn’t get trapped, to stopping the clocks in the house of the deceased to mark the exact time that a loved one had died. Their morbid view of life seems incongruent with how we live our lives now but does our lack of thought leave us under-prepared to face what is an inevitability at some point for us all? And if it does, can we ever prepare ourselves for these emotions?

However, as a doctor this may bring a different and additional dimension to the death of a loved one. There may be a guilt attached that we should have known or done more to prevent what happened, that we are expected to interpret the medical language used on death certificates or in reports. If any omission of care or action contributed to their death, we then must navigate the feelings of injustice without blaming or feeling anger towards our medical colleagues. This last one is hard but holding on to the fact that this will be a multilevel issue of system and human errors is important. Then there may be the difficulty in being back in our place of work if it is the same environment that our loved ones died in and how those feelings of loss can make working so hard. 

It is important to acknowledge that these feelings on top of your grief are OK. This is another facet to the journey through grief which happens to medical professionals because of our knowledge and skills. Instead, you need to hold on to the fact that you will get there but in your own time.

“Here's to the ones that we got
Cheers to the wish you were here, but you're not
'Cause the drinks bring back all the memories
Of everything we've been through
Toast to the ones here today
Toast to the ones that we lost on the way
'Cause the drinks bring back all the memories
And the memories bring back, memories bring back you.”


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