When sad things happen

Hi guys,

I started volunteering earlier this summer at an ICU at a large academic hospital. It’s very interesting and usually the surgeries go well…but sometimes they don’t. This past week a family had to decide if they were going to take their loved one (a woman who was in the prime of life) off life support. They decided to. Everyone was sobbing…it was so dramatic, I found myself almost in tears by the time I got home and have been thinking about it all week. This situation was a first for me.

What do you guys do to cope with your emotions when things like this happen? I found myself just literally having to get it out, (talk it out, ect.) and then make a conscious decision to just let it go. Stop thinking about it.

Just curious about your thoughts.

I’m sorry you are hurting. I would contact your hospital chaplian and ask what resources are available. I’m sure there is probably someone even better, but I’d think the chaplian would be used to witnessing these events and know where to direct you.

I know with our EMS unit our chief’s wife heads up the county department that deals with this stuff and your story would be one we would automatically be referred to a councelor about. Child abuse cases, death, etc are required to be debriefed on. I know you are not considered an employee, but as a volunteer you are staff and there should be some helps for you.

Talking about it is beneficial though. It’s a good way to get through it and get it off your chest.

I’m sending you a cyber hug now if that is actually possible.

Yup, that’s pretty much exactly what I do. Talk about it and get upset and then distract myself with something else. I can’t avoid the feelings and I can’t obsess on them, so I try to find a space in the middle. It’s okay to be moved. You’re not human if you’re not moved now and then. And I think, though I haven’t seen too much human tragedy myself at this point, that you get used to tragedy AND the feelings that come with it more than you stop having feelings. At least I hope so.

Yes, you want to keep feeling. Things like that should move you to tears. You simply have to leave yourself open to that part of the experience.


In my line of work, anesthesia & critical care, I have lost count of the number of bad/horrible situations I have had to lead families through. The best piece of advice I can give you is always remember you are human - and were long before you became a physician. You have to experience your emotions or risk becoming dead inside. More than once - actually quite often - I get misty eyed and shed tears, real tears, in these situations.

It is a very commonly held misconception by physicians that your patients and families want you to be perfect and to be stoically objective through even the most horrific situations. In my experience - 25 years in healthcare in a variety of positions and a net of 15+ years in various adult & pediatric ICUs - that is far from the case. What they most want is to be assured that you give a damn about their loved one and are doing your absolute best that you can. And, when you are wrong, to step up to the plate, admit it and express appropriate and REAL emotions…just any other human would…

The best piece of advice I ever rec’d was many years ago when I was night charge RT in the PICU at Ark Children’s Hospital. We coded and lost a wonderful young man who was known in the hospital. His parents, the nurses, the RTs & the secretaries were all crying…and I was crying too.

I looked at Eric, the charge RN, whom I had & still have the utmost respect for, and asked him, “when does this sort of stuff stop hurting?” He looked at me and through teary eyes calmly stated, “David, when things like this stop hurting, you have done this too long and need to move on.”

I still live by that creed…on a daily basis.

One of the nurses I worked with when I was a nurses aid once told me that when she could no longer cry with a patient or their family that it was time to leave the profession. I carry that statement with me daily.

I find the end-of-life care talks and decision-making processes with families one of the most rewarding parts of my job-- helping them understand the complexities of the decisions (I am usually doing this in the context of a loved one who has had a devastating stroke). This stroke is an acute event that most times was unexpected. Helping a family understand the prognosis and the options is so rewarding, helping them come to a decision that they are comfortable with, one that their loved one would make if they could be making the decision is one of the wonderful privileges this profession affords me. The care I provide to a palliative patient and their family is as important as the care I provide to acute stroke patients.

Wow - thank you so much for all of your very thoughtful responses. Truly great advice…I will be revisiting this post often. I feel a lot better knowing that it wasn’t just me…that I wasn’t “too” sensitive. I hate to say it but my appreciation for just living, getting to live as a healthy adult, day to day, has really increased through this experience.