Latest blog post:Medical School is hard enough, without having to deal with an illness or death in the family
As many UK medical schools last more than 5 years, it is possible that many of us as students may have to deal with a gravely ill family member and their subsequent death. Most people can go back to their lives, never having to deal on daily basis of with disease and death. However, as medical students, you are thrown right back into these situations. This may be difficult to deal with after a recent bereavement and it is hard to know whether or not to take some time off or to push through.
There is a limited amount of time that can be taken off for a bereavement at most medical schools, and missing too much time, may mean that one needs to take off the year. It is not unheard of to take off a year for personal reasons, and join the next group of students going through.
However one of the possible disadvantages of taking a year out is that you may lose all those valuable relationships that you have gained during your time spent late-night studying, cramming for exams, complaining about OSCEs, etc. After first year, many groups have solidified their “cliques”, so much so that it is difficult to see them as separate people. To leave a group or to enter a new one is quite difficult for some people. Suddenly, you see less and less of the people you knew and find it hard to open up to new people about yourself. You have become the “outsider”.
On the other hand, taking a year out may be a necessity. It may be difficult to cope with a sudden loss of a loved one. The many demands of medical school including giving full attention to studying, maintaining a professional manner and seeing patients may just be too much for someone going through the grieving process. The juggling act of emotions may just be too much.
Many of us live far away from our family and friends, so that strong support system is just not there during this difficult time. Although the friends that you may have at school may be sympathetic, they may not be able to provide the support that one would need. Sometimes, it is better to take time off to mourn and go through the grieving stages in your own time. This time doesn’t have to be unproductive, as some individuals take up jobs in different fields or pursue interests outside of medicine. Not only does this help with gaining some often needed funding for continuing your education upon your return, but it also keeps one distracted from thinking about death all the time.
This time off may give you time to reflect on yourself and on your life. Suddenly, it may become clear that medicine is not the career that you wanted. Conversely, this time off may just energize you to return back to medicine and further ignite your passion for the field.
Finally, there is the relationship you had with your loved one and the circumstances around their death itself. These emotions around how they have died, feelings of anger, regret, denial, etc. may effect how you are able to deal with their death. Feelings that have been buried deep in your subconscious may start to bubble up, leaving you to deal with subjects you had been avoiding. Additionally, returning home may mean that not only do you need to manage your own feelings, but you may have to support other family member(s) that are not coping as well. Dealing (or not dealing) with a death can be emotionally exhausting.
However, if you choose to stay in the year, there are many positives. Firstly, you can graduate with your cohort. Secondly, your schedule is already made. As a student, you just show up to scheduled activities without much thought, and this can keep you distracted. Although active learning may be challenging, being there everyday may give you a routine and sense of control. Thirdly, it may allow you to empathise better with patients as you may be sensitised to issues you never thought were important. For example, a DNAR is medico-legal term that is often seen in palliative care, however, having this written on your loved one’s chart, is like having the wind knocked out of you. Finally, it allows you to develop your professional manner something that you can take with you your entire career. As dealing with disease and death is part of a job as doctor, we all must see past ourselves to comfort the patient in front of us.
Regardless of your choice, a death in the family is never easy. It is a life event that we all go through, and it may hopefully help us in our future practice as doctors.