Leaving the Swamp Behind

12 months ago today, on the 2nd anniversary of my spouse’s death, I wrote a blog post about experiencing an urge to hit a patient (“Weathering the anniversary storm”). I explained that leading up the anniversary, communicating with patients and staff felt forced, and that conveying empathy felt fake.

This year, there have been no anniversary storms… just clear, calm and reflective waters.

Admittedly, verbal communication has been a little tricky due to a viral URTI, but laryngeal inflammation aside, I’m feeling as caring as ever.  More so, if anything.

On my partner’s birthday yesterday (he was killed on the morning after his 39th birthday) I made his favourite cornbread and lit candles, reminiscing about the love and beauty he brought to my life and to the world-at-large.

Birthday cornbread

Today I’m reflecting on the blessings and opportunities he continues to bring me, albeit in absentia.

For example, a few days ago I was doing bereavement counselling with a very sad patient who’d lost her husband of sixty years. At the end of the 45 minute consultation, I felt lighter, rather than heavier as I would have done previously.  As I was talking to my patient, indirectly using my lived experience to meaningfully help her, I felt my own burden lightening.

Being helped by helping others is not a new experience for me. What has changed is that the positive feelings are not always accompanied by a twinge of pain.

I’ve made it through the swamp and  to the other side.  It is not “getting over” my losses.  It is about moving forwards, with my grief, to a new place.

I hasten to add that there are, and always will be, painful moments. Grief will never completely leave me.  But the tsunami waves are less frequent, less overwhelming and, for the first time, not as predictably triggered by anniversaries and emotional interactions.

My life now is very different to that of my pre-swamp days. I am very different.  Becoming a childless mother and a widow changes you irrevocably. But I have not been changed for the worse.

For a start, I am a better doctor and educator.   I feel that I’m making a positive awareness-raising difference, as I wrote about here: “I’m more like herpes than Ebola” – spreading the message about driving fitness

I am a stronger, more appreciative and more grounded person for having loved and lost.

My life is as sweet as it has ever been.  Not sickly, fairy floss sweet, but rich and deeply layered, with the occasional hint of bitter to balance the sweet.  It is full of meaning, purpose, humour, interest and joy.  I’m lucky indeed.

I’ve gone from languishing to flourishing.

As has the tree which houses the ashes of my family.

Amalie’s tree 2015

Amalie’s tree 2018

 

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Weathering the anniversary storm

I had a sudden urge to slap a patient yesterday afternoon.  I didn’t act on the urge and was in no danger of doing so, but it rattled me all the same.  I’ve never before felt like I wanted to hit anyone (with the possible exception of my brother when we were kids, at times of peak annoyance).

For confidentiality reasons, I cannot reveal the content of the consultation which triggered such an out-of-character emotional response in me.  In general terms, the patient has an unhealthy dose of the “poor me” mentality, a stark lack of insight into, or compassion towards, others, and is causing her loved ones distress and harm.  We not uncommonly see patients like this and she was not an exceptional example.  I normally handle such patients perfectly calmly. She just happened to inadvertently say exactly the wrong things at exactly the wrong time…. wrong for me that is.

My response was not about a heartsink patient, it was about a heartbroken doctor.

I have become really good at separating my “stuff” from my patients’ “stuff”.  Caring about, but not self-identifying with, patients’ problems.  Not contrasting or comparing.  Being very mindful (ie present, aware and non-judgmental) during consults.  Providing genuine empathy without taking others’ emotional burdens.  It has taken time and a heap of deliberate practice to do this well but the rewards have been oh so sweet.  Career saving.  I’ve got back my clinical work mojo. I once again love seeing patients.

But not yesterday.

Yesterday,  communicating with patients and staff felt forced. Conveying empathy felt fake. Working like that is draining; utterly exhausting.

Why were things suddenly so difficult?  Why was I feeling so vulnerable?

You are probably familiar with the acronym H.A.L.T. which, in a medical practitioner’s work context, stands for Hungry, Angry, Late and Tired. Being hungry, angry, late or tired not only affects our sense of work satisfaction but increases our propensity to make cognitive biases in our clinical decision making, and for medical errors to occur.  The idea behind H.A.L.T. as a self-monitoring tool is to:

  • encourage us avoid these states as much as we can (eg by prioritising sleep and nutrition),
  • recognise when we are affected by one (or more) of them, “halt” what we are doing, ask ourselves what influence being hungry, angry, late or tired is having on our performance, and then try to minimise its impact.

In contexts such as addiction recovery, “Lonely” is substituted for “Late”.  Same principles: halt, reflect, rectify (when possible), avoid negative impacts.

I was not working while hungry, angry, late or tired yesterday, but the principles of H.A.L.T. did apply.

Yesterday was my partner’s birthday.  And today is the anniversary of his death; two years since he was mowed down on his morning jog by an impaired driver. Two years ago today, I got the phone call we all dread. The phone call that informs you there’s been an accident involving one of your immediate family. The phone call that tells you that the person you love most in this world has been killed, changing your life forever.

I always find anniversaries hard, and with two dead partners and two dead daughters, I have had plenty of experience with them.

Should I have gone to work yesterday? The practice I work for is brilliant about such things – everyone there would have been utterly supportive of my taking the day off despite us being understaffed at the moment. Why then it is so hard for me to admit that, despite how far I’ve come and how well I’m doing overall, I’m not always OK? And that is OK to not always be OK?

I’ve told at least four stressed patients this week that it is OK to take sick leave for mental health reasons. I’ve counselled. I’ve written medical certificates. I’ve told them to put themselves first etc etc.  With the greatest sincerity and not a hint of irony.

I teach about doctors’ health and wellbeing all around Australia, and beyond. I’ve written a play about it (“Physician Heal Thyself”).  I’m extremely passionate about doctors’ self care, almost one of those annoying crusader types. And yet I find it so hard to practice what I preach.

Today, I have halted. I’m having a quiet day and I’m feeling much more settled.  Tomorrow I will start marking 1400 odd GP exam papers (the FRACGP written exams are being sat today around Australia). And on Monday I will walk back into the surgery, hopefully with my ability to empathise intact and my mojo restored.

The waves of grief come far less often and with less intensity as time goes on. The short storms that hit around anniversaries are precious reminders of what I’ve lost and how far I’ve come, and as such, should be treasured.

I’m positive that this one, like the last, will clear soon…. revealing clear skies and calm seas.  For underneath the currently choppy surface, I am at peace.  I’m happy, I’m fulfilled and I’m loved.  Truly loved.

Most of all, I’m grateful.  I’m grateful for many things, including the silver linings of the storm clouds – the wisdom, strength, opportunities and sense of purpose which have been given to me by that which has been taken away.

Plan A didn’t work out for me. Neither did Plan B or C.  But Plan D is working pretty well, and I’m buoyed by the knowledge that there are 22 more letters in the alphabet if I need them.

(15th July, 2017)

 

After the storm… with Amalie’s tree in foreground