Sunday, August 15, 2010


As a hospice doctor, I go to a lot of funerals. My patients' families are always amazed and grateful when I attend, but that's not why I go. Part of it is about closure and paying respects, of course, but I derive another purpose from the trip to the church or synagogue or funeral home. Often it's only at the funeral that I get some sense of what my patients were like before I met them. When they are eulogized, or when I see a wall of photos under a heading like "A Celebration of the Life of..." I'm often amazed myself. I get a sense of my patients before they were my patients, when they were strong and vibrant spouses, parents, and members of the community.

That's what I expected would happen when I went to a memorial service recently. Rob had been a young man, only in his mid-forties when cancer took him. He'd had ties to the world of show business, so it didn't surprise me that his memorial included elements of stagecraft, expert video editing, and music. And I wasn't surprised that a lot of people were there -- maybe two or three hundred, filling a small auditorium in the artsy part of town.

What did surprise me was how much I cried.

I've shed a tear at other funerals, and even at the bedside (although there I am always careful, lest my needs take center stage over those of my patients and their loved ones). But this time was different. I didn't censor, I just let things happen and tried to make sense of my feelings as I watched the outpouring on the auditorium stage of love, genuine love, for Rob and what he had done for those he'd been close to.

And then I understood. I wasn't crying for him. I was crying for me.

I cried because I couldn't imagine a memorial service for me looking anything like the one for Rob. I cried because I couldn't imagine that twenty people, let alone two hundred, would give up an evening to say nice things about me. I cried because I couldn't imagine that my life, already a lot longer than Rob's, would ever have that kind of meaning and impact. I understood then that my patient's short life was telling me to live the rest of my own life better -- to be warmer, and more open-hearted, and more loving.

As a hospice doctor, I go to a lot of funerals. I also get the chance to examine my own life daily as I navigate through the suffering that my patients and their loved ones endure.