A Doctor at the Funeral

The New York Times
February 17, 2011

Many doctors express a desire to attend their patients’ funerals. But it can be nigh impossible to reschedule 20 patient appointments or rearrange a planned operation on the short notice that funerals typically offer. And beyond the logistical scheduling challenges lies an inner core of ambivalence; now that the medical care chapter has closed, we’re not quite sure how we fit into the patient’s life. We were so recently actively directing the medical care — doing something — and now we are the awkward bystanders, often abashed by the deference paid by families.

But the deeper truth, I think, is that it’s just too painful. Not because we feel that the death of a patient is a “failure,” as stereotype often has it. But because it hurts to keep losing members of the family. It hurts to keep seeing the bodies of your patients — bodies with whom you have been intimately familiar — laid out in stone-cold carriage. It hurts to see the face of someone with whom you’ve had deeply personal conversation, now rigid with that oddly blank expression. It just hurts.

It never gets easy. Not even after years in practice.

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