A grief we don’t speak of

Dr Jess Morgan reflects on dealing with bereavement as a paediatrician and how best to cope with the emotional impact. "With burnout and mental illness in medicine at an all-time high, we need to act now to amplify the conversation around compassion."
icon: two hands shaped around a symbolic heart that has a medical cross in the middle of it

He was six, a smile that lit up the waiting room. Every time I saw him, he had a new joke for me. Then one day, he was admitted acutely. He was sick. Properly sick. I was on leave at the time but heard that he hadn’t survived. Unprepared, I was hit with this overwhelming sense of grief and loss, emotions that I convinced myself were unprofessional. So I said nothing. 

From as early as medical school we are surrounded by death. It comes to be part of the job, something that we expect. Yet we rarely acknowledge the emotional impact that it has. A collective grief that we all carry, one that too often remains unspoken.

Reflective spaces such as Schwarz Rounds and debriefs are becoming increasingly recognised as positive experiences by those who attend, a place where we can pause and acknowledge the emotional impact of caregiving in the knowledge that we’re not alone. We need these conversations to extend beyond these spaces. We need a culture that values vulnerability and empowers us to lean into these conversations.

But sitting with someone else’s distress is uncomfortable. For many of us, there’s a natural instinct to want to fix things, to jump in and problem solve. Mary Freer, a passionate advocate for compassionate leadership in healthcare, talks about the importance of actively being present with someone, listening with curiosity and leaning into their discomfort. Only then can we begin to share our own humanity and move closer to helping them. 

This reminds me of a conversation a few years ago following a busy day. I was a registrar at the time. The little boy was five. An unexpected deterioration, a resus at the end of the shift. A drive home full self-doubt and uncertainty. Should we have done more? Would he survive? The next morning, I got a call. It was my colleague. “I thought you should hear this from me,” she said. “He died.” Silence, then tears. My tears… Before I hung up, I thanked her, because in that moment, she’d seen me. She’d recognised my distress and instead of leaving me to carry it alone until I was back in work the following week, she had picked up the phone and leant into it.

Compassion comes in many forms, from short conversations to large organisation change, but importantly, each of these actions starts with listening. Only when we sit with someone and really hear their distress, can we begin to understand what it is like to walk in their shoes. Then, through leaning in and connecting to our own humanity, we commit to trying to alleviate or prevent the other person’s suffering. 

Thrive Paediatrics is a RCPCH project with compassion at its heart, compassion and meaningful change. We are hearing your stories, ones of burnout, exhaustion and systems that negatively impact your wellbeing and we are committed to improving things, because, we matter. 

Among the stories of overwhelm and exhaustion, there are also stories of hope and kindness, of systems that have changed for the better. Stories like mine. These are the voices we want to amplify, the experiences we can all learn from to improve the working lives of our colleagues. We want to share these online and on social media and create a bank of examples of great practice for people to draw on. 

So, whether it’s a corridor conversation, a chat over coffee, a large-scale organisational initiative… share your stories with us and let’s celebrate all the compassion that’s already out there. Email us at thrive@rcpch.ac.uk.