For Residents

Was this your first one? Lessons in empathy and mourning

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“Was this your first one?”

You might be asked this question in several circumstances. Was this your first 5K run? Was this your first time taking the MCAT? For me, I was asked if this was the first time a patient had died while in my care as a resident.

As it turns out, this was the first patient who died under my care. This seemed obvious to everyone around me because when I received the news, offhandedly, days after my patient’s discharge, I cried. My colleagues’ responses to my tears were kind and supportive. No one was callous or judgmental. I was given time to compose myself before continuing my rounds for the day. Yet, the most common question asked of me was, “Was this your first one?”

The implication of this question was that these situations would become easier and less emotional over time. Everyone believed my tears were a special response, privileged only to my first experience. This was conveyed to me as if it was a chance to explain my emotions. As if grieving alone was not sufficient to explain tears, I began to run through the reasons for my behavior, and my mind rapidly searched for answers. I thought:

  • “I saw this patient daily for weeks, and I was close to him.”
  • “There was an element of suicidality in this case, so it was different.”
  • “After all, this was my first experience like this.”

In reality, these reasons were irrelevant and not needed to explain my tears. I was mourning the loss of a life—someone I had come to know well—and this was a life that ultimately could not be saved by the health care system.

These were my feelings during the July of my intern year. It is now a year later; I have since experienced an incredible number of moments that warranted mourning. There were oncology patients with advanced diseases who needed help disclosing their prognosis to family members. There were days when I was tasked with altering treatment courses from aggressive treatment to comfort measures only. There was the Christmas Eve when a pair of brothers dropped off their elderly father in the emergency department because no one was able or willing to care for him at home.

These moments can come fast, and they occur more frequently than one might imagine. Each is worthy of mourning. Each is worthy of tears, whether it is my first loss or my 50th. But the reality is that I could not function in my job and care for all my patients equally if I stopped every time to acknowledge my emotions. As much as it causes my stomach to turn, I understand the “Was this your first one?” phenomenon. To outwardly express your emotions and openly mourn in the moment, you need to have the time and allow yourself the vulnerability to do so. After your “first one,” you realize that mournful moments can occur regularly and you must choose to process emotions on your own time because you don’t have the luxury of processing a loss of life in the present moment.

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