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.


  1. It is particularly trying when the younger ones leave the planet. We grieve for their loss and for ours.

  2. You are truly an outstanding writer who captures the emotions of this difficult industry quite perfectly. By the very nature of what you do, you are an exceptional human being. I'm sure that your care and attention have have affected more people than you know--don't sell yourself short!

  3. Wow. Don't think I've ever had that clear of an epiphany at a patient's funeral. But maybe I should have. Rings so true, it stings. (ps- hospice RN, 8 yrs)

  4. As a hospice RN for 23 years, I have had similar reasons for attending funerals . . . to get a sense of who this person was before he/she was so weak and frail. There are times I have left a patient's home, wondering if my family will be able to provide the care I need when it's time. I have been truly amazed at what non-medical family members are willing to do, out of love: personal care, dressing changes, etc. I think it all boils down to wanting to feel like we have made a difference while on this earth and the fear that maybe we haven't made enough of an impact. But I think, as hospice nurses and physicians, we probably have.

  5. “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” Norman Cousins