It’s can be a powerful sentiment — as in gratitude for the ultimate gift or a heavy sacrifice.
But it can also be empty — as in a “thanks for nothing.”
I remember taking care of a patient midway through my residency. We had tried many different things, but eventually he succumbed to the disease and passed away in the hospital. I don’t remember what the patient looked like. I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember the disease.
What I do remember was that we tried. We tried to make him better, but in the end we did not meet this goal. As the futility of our efforts became clear to us and to the family, we decided to focus on comfort.
The patient passed away.
The memory that has haunted me to this day is walking into the room and having the patient’s brother walk up to me. As he drew closer he pulled me into an embrace and thanked me. He actually thanked me.
In dealing with death and dying it has not been uncommon for me to hear a thank you from the loved ones of a patient who has passed. But this was the first time I experienced this. And maybe that’s this memory has stuck with me since then.
Thanks. It jarred me to hear that sentiment from this grieving man. In that instance I could not do much more than return his embrace. I had no words but to say, “I’m sorry.”
To me, my words felt empty. They felt inconsequential. But it was all I could muster.
I felt like I was being thanked for nothing. I felt like I was being thanked for failing. Because that’s the lens through which I viewed the situation.
Now, I realize that I should be grateful for their appreciation. I marvel at how some people, in their moments of grief, can still take time to express their gratitude — even if it is “just” for compassion and care instead of the cure for which they had pleaded and prayed.
Medicine is a profession most of us go into because we want to fix problems and make people better. Too often it is easy to view death as a failure of what we set out to do. The danger in allowing us to view death this way is that we may feel that we have provided nothing to our patients and their families.
But sometimes patients and their families don’t need a savior. Sometimes they just need someone to be with them through the journey’s end. And to them, you have given way more than “nothing.” You have given everything.