A Perspective on Grief – Dr Bonnie Chen

Through our mission of spreading awareness and understanding of grief, we have come to know many perspectives on life and loss. We have learned some of the ways loss is felt and life is celebrated, the ways the memories and presence of those gone from us are felt through the day-to-day. Much of what we have learned has come from our work in Give Grief a Voice, where we are able to sit down with a family and talk in depth about their child and their experience grieving them.

In 2023, we had the honor of talking with Dr. Bonnie Chen and her husband about the loss of their child, Benji. Bonnie works as a palliative care physician, where she cares for seriously ill patients. In April, 2023, Bonnie wrote the following piece for the Opinion/Open Forum section of the San Francisco Chronicle and SFChronicle.com, which we share here with permission.  

She writes how the loss of her son changed her perspectives on death and grief.  Thank you, Bonnie, for sharing your heart with your community and with us.

Art by Dianna Fontes

Dear Patient:

I know now what I didn’t know then. My 16-month-old son died unexpectedly last summer, and I experienced life on the other side of the exam table, in horrid slow-motion technicolor. I sat on the other end of a 911 call. I rode in the ambulance as a caregiver, not a first responder. I waited outside the emergency room as I heard the doctor call out for vital signs and medications, and most tellingly to my ears, a social worker. I experienced the silence after the gloves came off and the team walked wearily out of the room. This time, I was the one to wail.

The truth is, Patient, I am not unfamiliar with death. I am a palliative care physician, a branch of medicine focused on quality of life for those living with serious illness. I came to this specialty because it helped me preserve the heart of why I went to medical school in the first place and touched on a tender part of my soul that was already marked by loss, having seen my mom live with and then die of cancer when I was a teenager. As a doctor, I lived on the margins of grief daily, handling it with as much care as I could while still tucking it neatly away when I walked out of the office each day.

But in this moment, living daily with grief and pain and longing, feeling rage and fear and dread seemingly in the same instant, I find my mind wandering to you, dear Patient, and seeing you in a whole new light.

I am so sorry that I didn’t know. I sat across the room from you, and you did such a good job of hiding your suffering with silence or anxiety or anger, that I didn’t see your broken, beautiful core there. I offered words that I thought were empathy like, “This must be so hard,” or “I can’t imagine what it is you’re going through,” and I went home and patted myself on the back for being there for you, for being a beacon in a medical system that attempts to automate and quantify the most precious parts of the life experience. In reality, you left our visit feeling more alone. For that, I am so sorry.

I didn’t see how your description of abdominal pain held multitudes. Yes, there is a tumor in your liver and, yes, it may be helped by pills or heat or any number of handy solutions that I used to reach for with earnest self-satisfaction. What I did not acknowledge was that in your breathless descriptions, begging to be heard because I might cut you off at any moment, there was also a plea to be seen. That is the thing about grief that I know now — it is so lonely. The cut is so thoroughly deep that you cannot believe the world doesn’t see the pulsating flood pouring out of you — and yet you walk among people who seem fully oblivious. It is as if I am saying silently all of the time, “Don’t you know? How can you not know?” all the while smiling cheerfully and speaking of the mundane. I see now, Patient, that you were saying that, too, underneath it all, asking me to see.

Here’s what I’d say to you today instead: I don’t know if I can fix your abdominal pain, but I will try. I will look for answers and seek out solutions and no matter the outcome, I will be there. I will walk with you all the way. I promise to be one of the few who will walk with you all the way.

I see you, beautiful, grieving Patient. I honor the fact that in the face of the insurmountable task of making it to the next day, of getting out of bed, of living this unbidden life, you chose to come to my office and explain what you are going through and ask for help. I am so sorry for all of the times that I failed to honor your request, where I shoved your deep questions under the rug because the 20-minute visit was over, or where I relegated your suffering to the realm of someone else’s job. I am so sorry that you stepped into the vulnerable place of being a patient who seeks counsel from an expert, and in return, I did not honor that sacred marvel of a moment, that gift of authenticity that you extended to me. I can see clearly now.

I do not have all the answers, even for myself — perhaps most of all for myself. I do not have pat advice for how to move through grief and sorrow, Patient. It is so fresh, so jagged, so consuming. (Maybe you have advice for me? I am all ears.) I only know that my weeping heart reaches into the past to those days when I sat with you and out into the future to when I hope to sit with you again, and this time I name myself as your companion. I grieve with you. I am with you. May we all feel less alone, even as we bleed.

Love, Your Doctor