Published on: February 26, 2022

Sindhu S writes:

Dr Sunita Puri

We must learn to look at grief, even when we want to run away, writes Sunita Puri in her opinion piece in The New York Times.

Dr Puri, palliative medicine physician, and author of  the book, That Good Night: Life and Medicine in the Eleventh Hour shares her experience of being a witness to grief of her patient’s wife who had to take the tough decision of letting go of her beloved husband to protect him from having to live a life worse than death.

“Months ago, over Zoom, I told a patient’s wife that her husband was dying of Covid-19. She’d last seen him six weeks earlier when he first entered the hospital, but visitor restrictions had prevented her from being at his bedside.

“Covid had destroyed his lungs; he would most likely need a ventilator to breathe for him for the rest of his life. She said nothing for a long while. Then she told me he wouldn’t want to suffer anymore.”

Dr Puri describes the wife’s sorrow witnessing her husband’s last moments. “A nurse pushed pain medicine through his vein. The respiratory therapist removed his breathing tube in one graceful arc. My patient’s wife pressed harder against the door and inched closer. Her husband took slow, shallow breaths for a few minutes, and then he was still. She dropped her head and folded forward like paper curling toward the fire that consumes it. The imprint of her palms remained on the glass door.”

She says bearing witness is “essential to everything” that she does in palliative care. However, Dr Puri admits that earlier in her career, looking closely at this particular kind of pain was as blinding as looking at the sun. She realised that rather than protecting people from their grief, she should “bear witness” and be there for them. She should be by their side as grieving persons flip through family photographs, and listen to them reminisce about their loved one, which actually helps them heal enough to “move forward with grief”; in finding a way to keep on living “carrying the burden of grief” with them.

“The prelude to compassion is the willingness to see,” she writes. “We must allow ourselves to be moved by what happened and to understand that it happened…

“I don’t believe in ‘moving on’ and ‘finding closure’. “Can we instead move forward with grief? Can we find a way to integrate loss into life, to carry it with us? Can we feel tragedy together, she asks, those who are ready to move on and those who can’t see a way out?”

In India, more than five lakh people have died of Covid so far, which brings the number of bereaved to around two million. We could make use of Dr Puri’s suggestion; be there for the bereaved, and bear witness as they slowly process their grief, more so in such circumstances, where the loved ones had to bid farewell to the deceased from a distance. The grieving family needs occasional calls from friends, letters or even visits when possible; not to give advice, not to ask them to move on, but to listen to them and just be there, “to bear witness”.

Read the complete article here: We Must Learn to Look at Grief, Even When We Want to Run Away

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