what one good doctor taught me about grief

We were brand-new to the clinic, looking for a new doctor after our beloved pediatrician had retired. Our three living children are healthy as galloping horses—a simple fact made astonishing after the deaths of their two sick sisters. But they still need well-checks and vaccines and strep tests and a place to call about rashes and fevers and flu.

So here I was, hugely pregnant, waddling in the door with a newly minted three year-old, ready for his yearly check-up.

He clung to my leg, worried about shots and whether I would stay with him the whole time. My concerns were less immediate, more long-term. The baby kicking within me would soon need a doctor, too (God, please, let it be so). A name to scribble for “pediatrician” on the hospital forms. Someone to see for the routine and not-so-routine visits that consume the first few months of babyhood.

So would I drop the grief bomb today?

Or would I wait till I had a wailing newborn safely in my arms?

How could I start to tell our story to a stranger who needed to know our past?

The receptionist greeted us with a smile and stack of forms. Pen in hand, I filled in the easy blanks. Then on the top of the second page, the question read stark and bold:

Has any member of the child’s immediate family died? (Parent, Sibling, Grandparent, etc.)

I caught my breath.

They asked this question first? Before the usual litany of ailments, conditions, diseases, and cancers that worm their way into every family tree?

I read it again. Then I wrote the only answer, pure and simple.

Yes – twin sisters born prematurely, died due to complications from twin-to-twin-transfusion syndrome.

It wasn’t a grief bomb. It was our life. It is who we are.

I finished every mundane checklist and carried the forms down the hall.

When the doctor swung wide the door, she greeted my son by name and with cheer. We both grinned.  She took the forms into her hands and began to read. I suddenly remembered what I’d written and started to stare very hard at the Elmo book in front of my son as if it were the year’s Pulitzer Prize winner.

“Oh,” she said as she scanned the page. “Oh—“

You learn this turn of tone as a parent of dead babies. You see instantly when people start to reshuffle their read on you, how the brain reels back and resets into a different mode. You become The Bereaved.

She looked me straight in the eyes. “I am so, so sorry,” she said.

“And I am so glad you gave them names. I’m so glad you shared them here. Because their brothers will always know they had sisters—they will always be part of your family.”

Startled, I nodded, willing the brimming water on my eyelids not to spill over.

“You never get over a loss like that,” she said, setting down the papers.

“It’s so huge. It’s devastating.”

And then, as if all the air had been sucked out of the room and I didn’t notice, it came rushing back in—a long breath of truth and empathy.

As if with a stamp of official medical coding, she had approved the last 16 months of my life.

(Because yes, did you know we still count months? That we cannot help but picture the ghosts of their selves grow one month older with each turn of the calendar? That the dates of their deaths have became the center of each moonly orbit, orienting us to grief by where we fall in the ellipse?)

You never get over a loss like that.

I can give you no prescription to pick up.

There is no handout to explain. No treatment plan.

Just plain truth. You. Never. Get Over. A Loss Like That.

In that heartbeat of a second, I knew I could trust this doctor with the lives of every one of my children. She already held them.

And in an era when health care horror stories overshadow every human side of medicine, all I could think was: you are a good doctor. I wish every grieving parent could hear you say what you just told me.

For when we need the official word, the stamp of approval, the solid defense against a society that shudders at death and shoves grief into small corners.

She did all the normal things. She checked my healthy son’s heart, lungs, eyes, ears. She knocked his knees with a rubber hammer to check his reflexes. She made him giggle that a grasshopper was jumping in his chest.

But before she did all that, she made our unnatural normal.

If only life could always be so easy. Any first encounter would ask us about our losses, the griefs and gaping holes in our lives and families. We could respond with honesty, without fear of judgment. Our heartache would be held in gentle hands, our vulnerability assured to be normal.

But that isn’t the way it goes. Truth be told, those encounters are as rare as the statistics that produce them. So we have to stop and notice when it happens.

Because one good doctor reminded me that once we name grief, we make it something we can carry.

And once it’s something we can carry, it’s something we can share.

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  1. Tara on 5 July 2017 at 11:15 am

    Thank you for sharing this! It is beautiful that she acknowledged your daughters, we need more physicians like her. I have worked in healthcare for 12 years and they are greatly needed. I cried reading this. I was seeing my primary physician for a problem possibly caused by several pregnancies, he handled our three miscarriages with compassion. God Bless you!

  2. GretchenJoanna on 3 July 2017 at 8:03 pm

    I got both chills and tears reading this. I also am so sorry about your babies. Memory Eternal! That is what we say in the Orthodox Church, a prayer that God will remember them always. Of course He does, and of course we also won’t forget them, because we will ultimately be joined together again in that kairos that you speak of.

    Thank you very much for sharing this. And what a blessing that you are great with child once more.

  3. jen on 30 June 2017 at 5:51 am

    I’m very lucky to have a pediatrician like this for my kiddo.

  4. Elise on 27 June 2017 at 1:21 pm

    Wow. So powerful. Thank you for sharing, as always.

  5. Lauren on 27 June 2017 at 6:51 am

    Thank you for this. I had my physical yesterday and, because it’s part of my health history, I had to say out loud, again, that another uncle died by suicide. Two. Another. My doctor was kind and acknowledged the pain and devastation that must bring to a family. It was so helpful to have it acknowledged, not as a box to be checked off in a history of deaths and diseases, but as a real experience that happens and needs grieving and care. I didn’t realize it at the time, because I just wanted the words gone and the moment past. But you are right, it was a moment worth pausing over.

  6. Kathleen B Kelly on 27 June 2017 at 6:28 am

    So glad this happened, Laura ! Empathy ~~ so welcome and uplifting in a medical setting! And, as ever, you tell the story wonderfully….

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