Finding a Community in Grief During Medical School

“I used to think that grief was something that a person went through alone. That was, until I went to medical school.”

The views and opinions expressed in this collection are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Priya Roy

Priya Roy is a first-year resident physician in the Department of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin.

 

 

 

 

Just before the start of my second year, my father was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. As you might imagine, the diagnosis was devastating for our family. But in the ensuing months as we navigated oncology appointments, surgeries, and seemingly endless worries over his prognosis, I found myself faced with another unexpected problem: the overwhelming sense of fear and sadness that I felt in the midst of my father’s health decline was starting to affect my schoolwork. I noticed that I was getting distracted during lectures. I wasn’t motivated to study for exams anymore. I was isolating myself from my peers. I was even choking back tears when I met patients who reminded me of my dad. At first, I thought that I was just in a rut. It took a lot of self-reflection, but I eventually realized that what I was experiencing was grief. No matter how hard I tried to compartmentalize my personal life from my academic one, I couldn’t ignore the fact that my dad was dying.

Eventually, I talked to a few supportive teachers at my school about what I was going through. I’m so grateful for their kindness and patience with me. Even still, I realized that many people—even those who work in medicine and medical education—do not always know how to help grieving students work through their loss in productive ways. It’s not an easy task, after all. Medical school is already a unique and demanding training process. It’s not designed to allow life to get in the way.

I confided my feelings in one of my classmates, a young woman named Kortni Ferguson who had recently lost her mother as well. Together, the two of us learned that there were other medical students struggling through similar situations. Suddenly, I didn’t feel quite so alone. It felt comforting to hear the familiar stories of my peers, who vented their frustrations and shared their coping strategies. And it felt empowering to share my own experiences with them. These events inspired me and Kortni to found an organization called BereaveMed, which seeks to arm medical students with practical resources that can help them navigate the bereavement process during their training.

In the last year, we’ve established BereaveMed as a collaborative website where medical trainees everywhere can support one another through difficult times. The site provides a safe space for them to share their stories with one another. Students can add to our collection of online tools for coping with loss and find mental health resources in their area. They can even read blog posts written by experts in medical education and mental health that are specifically geared toward their needs. Ultimately, BereaveMed’s goal is to reassure grieving medical students that they are not alone, and I’m so proud of the supportive network that we’ve created in our little corner of the internet.

Our website, which can be found at www.bereavemed.com, has been shared with medical students across the country. We now have users in over 40 states and we encourage you to join our growing community! We want to shine a light on the personal struggles that so many medical trainees silently face every day. Moreover, we hope to change the culture of how the medical field as a whole treats its trainees’ experiences with grief, and we believe that this change can start with us.