We all have either experienced personally or have been close to someone experiencing grief. In the medical field, we have also signed up for a lifetime of taking care of people who often meet us at their doorstep of grief. It is something that often presents itself without warning: an uninvited guest with an overwhelming presence. Even so, this universal human experience also comes bearing gifts.
First, grief reminds us of our humanity. As high achievers, many of us often lean on the security blankets of our strong work ethic, uncanny ability to compartmentalize heavy emotions, and our false sense of control. We build a fort around it: a hedge of protection that keeps us comfortable and, dare I say, confident. When grief then comes knocking at the door of our souls, whether by way of a pandemic, the loss of a loved one, or through illness, we are quickly reminded of our fallibility. Confidence in our ability to tackle life is swiftly met with life’s ability to tackle us. This gifts us with the opportunity to slow down, recognize our ultimate lack of control, and accept our limitations as they are.
Sympathy vs. Empathy
Another gift received through the experience of grief is the evolution of sympathy into empathy. I was once given the analogy that sympathy is like seeing someone stuck inside of a 10-foot hole. Once you see them, you feel for them and are thus moved to help. As a result, you get a ladder and slowly lower the ladder down to help the person come out of the hole. On the other hand, empathy is the muscle memory gained after overcoming hardship and grief. Looking into the hole from that point of view, grief repositions your heart posture to feel with a person. As a result, not only do you offer your ladder, but you climb down to meet the individual where they are, 10-feet under, before you help them navigate their way out. Grief sharpens your vision to see another person’s grief as an extension of your own, the essence of empathy.
Moreover, walking through grief truly gives new meaning to the mundane. Every day of my life so far, I am certain that the sun has risen, the sun has set, and certain that most days I have not given any thought to this at all. Believe it or not, paying attention to what the sun chooses to do everyday is actually extremely low on my priority list. Now add life as a medical student where you often leave the hospital after dark, life in a pandemic where you beat your personal record for extended time inside of one place, and life just happening and bringing grief along for the ride. It has birthed a newfound hobby and made for one highly skilled iPhone sunset photographer. Admittedly, my photography skills likely would have been great without the heaviness of life, but the significance behind the photos I take now after having gone through some heavy things, and what they mean to me behind the lens….irreplicable.
In short, nobody ever asks to be met with grief. It is heavy, and truly changes a person for a lifetime. May these unannounced visits from grief (whether previous, current, future, or adjacent) leave us with some gifts in the midst of all that it brings. Although uninvited, may this guest remind us of our humanity, provoke us to deeper connection with those around us, and birth new meaning into the everyday things of life. May it teach us to learn the art of suffering well.
Gabrielle Owusu-Ansah, MS, is an MD/MBA student at Tulane. As a liaison on the MelaninDoc team, she organizes scholarship campaigns and collaborations with other medical organizations. Currently, she works to increase recruitment and retention of minorities to medicine and is passionate about enhancing emotional intelligence in the field. She is a deep conversationalist who loves singing and fitness, and is a budding iPhone photographer.