Last week, we started a class called “Death and Dying” (doesn’t it sound fun?). Jokes aside, this class is a valuable component of the medical school curriculum. Physicians deal with death on a regular basis—some every day, and others every hour. During one of our discussions about a patient, a small tear rolled down my cheek. I quickly wiped it away in embarrassment, pinched myself to “get my act together,” and hoped no one had seen. Later that day, I wondered what would have happened if another student had seen me almost cry? Would their opinion of me change?
I am a “crier.” Not when I am faced with my own struggles, but when those I love go through happy or sad times, that’s when the waterworks kick in. This has me worried. I know that crying is seen as a sign of weakness. Some would even call it unprofessional, and I can’t blame them. Our profession teaches us to set personal and emotional problems aside. But what happens when our profession is the cause of these emotions?
A recent discussion we had in class answered my questions. It turns out that crying is okay. Of course, this does not mean we should break down every time a patient has to spend an extra day in the ED, but it does mean we can be vulnerable in a highly professional setting. One of the pediatric oncologists shared a special patient experience with us. She had always shied away from crying in front of her patients. However, one day after a family had received especially disheartening news, she unintentionally teared up in the clinic room. This was well received by the patient’s family—the patient’s mother told her, “It let me know you cared.” From that point on, the physician’s relationship with the family was altered—an unbreakable, unspeakable bond was formed.
This alleviated a few of my fears concerning the display of raw emotion. We are in a profession where humans care for other humans. It is natural to cry. In fact, we become physicians because we deeply care and love others. Showing this empathy is not a sign of weakness—it is a sign of power.
Yet, there are some important points to remember about crying. Though releasing a few tears is okay, you cannot become a mascara-stained mess.
- Your tears have to come naturally. These tears are symbols of your love and devotion. They signify your raw, genuine emotion. Don’t cry to make yourself closer to a family.
- You still need to be strong for your patients and their families. You want to be able to process and deliver information to them in a calm, collected way.
- You do not want to cry and then have your patients feel they have to comfort you. You are their robust pillar of support! They should be leaning on you for guidance and comfort—not the other way around.
A Single Tear by Lauren C