Giving ourselves permission to cry

In medicine, there’s an unwritten rule that we just get on with things. But, says RCPCH Dinwoodie Clinical Fellow, Dr Jess Morgan, we need to acknowledge the emotional burdens we each carry.
icon: two hands shaped around a symbolic heart that has a medical cross in the middle of it

She’s 2. No respiratory effort. No pulse. We follow the algorithm, the one we know so well. We do everything but to no avail. She’s dead. It’s her mother’s screams that get me…a distress that no parent should have to go through. A deep and painful wail. A cry that reminds me of the unconditional love I have for my own child.

As I separate myself from the others, my eyes fill with tears. Fiddling with the paperwork on the side, I try to make myself seem busy. I bite my lip… I’m fine. I have to be fine.

A few hours later, I slam the car door closed, throw my bag on the passenger seat and collapse onto the steering wheel. Exhausted and overwhelmed, the tears start pouring. And then, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand, I start the engine.

It wasn’t infrequent for me to cry after a difficult scenario. In a sluice, in the car… ideally where none could find me. But, in my mind, displaying this kind of overwhelming upset carried shame. Nobody else cried. Like them, I should have been able to handle it.

But then last year, I was talking to a nurse practitioner about this. 

“Oh, this happens to me,” she said. 

“Really…?” I replied, the surprise obvious in my voice. 

“Yeah, and to lots of my colleagues too.” 

I paused. What? So, I wasn’t ‘weak’ or ‘fragile’. Sensitive perhaps, but certainly not alone. And in that moment, the myth was dispelled. Other people cry too.

In medicine, there’s an unwritten rule that we just get on with it, an attitude which fails to acknowledge the emotional burden of caregiving and the reality of dealing with distressing cases. As part of Thrive Paediatrics, we are creating communities of paediatricians who are working to transform the working lives of their colleagues. Up and down the country, both individuals and departments are doing fantastic work creating reflective spaces for their colleagues, places where people can collectively share and discuss the emotional effects of our job. Because let’s face it: we are human. 

We want to hear your experiences, share good practice and connect people. If you relate to this story, have experienced or been involved in setting up Schwarz rounds, reflective spaces, debriefs or other initiatives that promote vulnerability and reflection, please get in touch at thrive@rcpch.ac.uk. It’s time to create a culture where we can role model our humanity and talk about the emotional impact of working in paediatrics.