“Mourning has become unfashionable in the United States. The bereaved are supposed to pull themselves together as quickly as possible and to reweave the torn fabric of life.”
For many years, I have attempted to write a personal note to the family whenever one of my patients dies. The task runs in streaks; a few weeks ago, I wrote cards to three separate families. Several times each year, I attend a visitation.
Writing notes and saying goodbye to families was not easy at first. I selfishly worried that they would “blame” me.
Instead, I have been overwhelmed by the warmth, gratitude, and caring that the families express. They often single me out for family introductions and to share wonderful stories that open new windows for me. Many times, we all realize that we have shared some truly unique experiences.
The value of these gestures came into focus as I recently re-read “The Doctor’s Letter of Condolence”
(Bedell SE, Cadenhead K, Graboys TB, NEJM
2001; 344:1162-1164). The writers describe the physician’s historically important role in mourning. They provide guidance on how a letter should be written. They point out that “failure to communicate with the family members conveys a lack of concern about their loss…particularly when we share with them some of the most profound moments of life and death.”
When my father died a couple of years ago, my mother and I spent some time looking over the cards we had received. Among the messages from friends and family was a note from my dad’s internist. It was warm and personal. It showed thought. I had a renewed sense of appreciation for both the physician and the gestures of sympathy.
I recently ordered a new box of note cards. I wonder what stories I will accumulate before it is time to order another.
A previous version of this essay appeared in the MCW Cancer Center News.