The end of the year is always a time for reflection. The darkness leads to more time indoors, more time with our thoughts, and often with our families. Reflecting on this difficult year is a strange exercise for me.
A Tumultuous Year
My wife and I have passed the one year anniversary of my daughters birth and death. Moreover, I am now more than 6 months into my new gig as a traveling critical access doctor. Life has started to settle into a bit of rhythm.
After all of the grief and upheaval of the last year, simply living a relatively normal life can be rather unsettling. I seem to even seek out problems or reasons for dissatisfaction. I have a bit of a restless soul – a blessing and a curse.
For one, the holidays seem to be a negative trigger for me this year.
I always struggle from the time the clocks change to the first week or two of January. The loss of light affects my mood for the worse. Prior to last year, I had a great ambivalence about the holidays – neither a grinch nor a lover of the season.
The Shadow of a Loss
That being said, last year’s holiday season was not a good one for our family. The holidays came very quickly on the heels of our daughter’s passing and I was on call for a good bit of both Thanksgiving and Christmastime.
With those memories so fresh, this year’s holidays are hardly buoyant. Sure, the pain is not as fresh and does not burn quite as bad, but its shadow stills falls on the season.
Living through this holiday season is like walking through the burnt-out shell of an ash-covered family home. The shock and wailing pain of watching the flames tear everything apart has past. Nonetheless, an eery sadness lingers over everything.
To keep myself from falling into a hole of self-pity, I have taken some advice to actively practice some gratitude. God knows I have plenty reasons not to feel gratitude, but I also have plenty reasons to do so.
Giving Gratitude a Chance
Even last year, my wife and I took time to be actively grateful for the arrival of our daughter, even if her presence with us was far too short. She taught us a great deal and the heart cannot be overfull of love.
Finding gratitude about the current state of medicine and my role in it takes a little more effort. I have written a lot about my experience in medicine and life over the last few months (and it hasn’t all been rosy).
Yet, I also remember the ones and things we love are often what can hurt us the most. My relationship with medicine is much more complicated than it once was.
I struggle to accept the imperfections of a system charged with healing yet is highly profit driven and largely inhumane.
This system charged me a steep entrance fee. The cost comes in actual dollars but also in time and stress and tears. In the end, I felt expendable.
Yet, I also have to remember the care our daughter received in that same system. I cannot forget our neonatologist sitting in front of our house with us as we held our daughter without tubes or machines for the first and final time.
Humanity does still course through the veins of our healthcare system, even if the system neglects it at every opportunity.
Nonetheless, My Privilege is Great
Doctors are a pretty privileged lot, all things considered. I don’t mean to minimize my own or other’s distress at the current state of affairs. On the other hand, I see how my situation may have played out very differently for someone else.
Few other careers exist where you can quit your job, move to another state, and have to turn down work immediately. That is how it worked out for me.
I simply showed up and had my choice of work location and practice type within my speciality. Not only that, but I have been able to improve my worklife balance with an acceptable sacrifice of income.
Physicians skills are in such need that not only was I able to find a different job, but a completely different way of working. Hard to complain.
Medicine giveth, and medicine taketh away.
Work isn’t Everything
Even more importantly, medicine had given me wisdom. Caring for people who were very ill or had suffered great loss or trauma gave me access to life’s most difficult moments. Few other professions allow for the gaining of such wisdom without personally suffering those blows.
Learning how to help guide people through their struggles led me to read books and literature I never would have read otherwise. This knowledge was invaluable when our daughter was born. I didn’t have a how-to guide, but at least I knew the big ideas.
Most importantly, I had learned the value of connection. When our daughter was born, our gut reaction was to circle the wagons, raise the drawbridge. My patients had taught me this was not the right move.
Love and loss must be shared, inextricably linked as they are. We called friends and family and offered for them to come to meet our daughter. To be present with us in a difficult time.
Without exception, the responses we received were full of gratitude.
“We are honored to come,” was the common answer.
In our moments of grief, this might surprise us, but it shouldn’t. Wouldn’t all of us respond the same way if someone we loved extended us the same offer?
Moreover, the decision has paid great dividends. To those who met her, the people we love, our daughter is not simply the nameless baby we lost. She was a person, has a name. We can talk about the shape of her nose, or her special little movements with so many people.
Having her in more people’s memories does not just preserve her memory, but means she was even more alive when she was here. Hell, we even have a social security card for her.
It is the caring for patients that taught me this knowledge before my family needed it. In the end, I am still thankful for medicine.
“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
― Kahlil Gibran