A Physician’s Role In Patient Grief

By Karin Krisher

The mental and physical pieces of humans are inextricably linked, so that events that trigger emotional reactions still cause physical symptoms. In light of the recent tragedy in Connecticut and personal experience with grief manifesting as physical symptoms, I wondered what role physicians should play in the process. Talking to your patients about grief is not easy—but that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary.

Why The Physician’s Role Matters

A transformation in our forums for communication has left members of our society with fewer immediate resources for dealing with grief. Where in the past, we might have turned to close-by extended family members, church community members or neighbors, we now turn to the Internet and the family physician. Further, the American culture is one that keeps death in the fear zone, and wants to move past difficult emotions quickly. (Check out this resource for further explanation.)

What You Can Do: Concrete Tips

As a physician, you have a unique role. You are privy to both physical symptoms and emotional admissions. To help your patients move through the bereavement process, it’s important to know the symptoms. That’s tip number one. Be aware that things like sleep disturbances, appetite changes, auditory and visual hallucinations and absent-mindedness can indicate grief.

If your patient is in denial or the grief response is non-normative or delayed, it may be difficult for you to be sure there is actually grieving involved in these symptoms. That’s tip number two: Ask appropriate questions, and listen to the answers. Questions like, “Is there a specific loss you’ve experienced lately that you would like to talk about?” leave the air open for the patient to express himself or herself.

Tip three: Pay attention to recurring behaviors and important dates or reminders. If your patient mentions the date of his or her loss or a special place she or he shared with a loved one, write it down. Two years from now when symptoms of grief are physically manifest, you’ll know why, and that will tell your patient you are truly listening and want to help.

For children, who may lose track of time or not fully understand the value or meaning of certain feelings, tip three can be especially important. Tip four? Children count in this process, too. The role of a family physician is to see to the family’s health, and children’s emotions are a huge part of that. Allowing children to grieve is necessary. Denial of that opportunity may teach them that grieving is abnormal and may harm their future emotional knowledge.

All patients experiencing grief will experience it in an individual manner. Tip five is to recognize both similarities and inherent differences in how people grieve. Nothing is right or wrong. While there are decidedly clear stages of grief, not all people will go through all stages or begin them and end them at the same time. Tip six is to enlist the help of a specialist. Bereavement counseling can be highly beneficial for some patients, and you can work with them to ensure their experience is one of import.

The most important tip to help your patients deal with grief? Be a shoulder. As I mentioned, many former support systems have morphed or disappeared. If someone trusts you enough to allow you to be a part of his or her grief, remaining committed to listening and committed to his or her wellness will allow you to serve as a true helper.

How have you helped your patients deal with grief in the past? We’d love to share in your experience—tell us about your role in the process on our Facebook page.

Grief and grief counseling can’t be explained in one blog post. Check out these other great resources for more information.