When Death Comes to Your Job: Grieving What Was and Moving On

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When Death Comes to Your Job: Grieving What Was and Moving On

By Melissa Welker, MD MPH

It has been only two weeks since I realized the job I had was gone. As physicians I think we have this idea of what our work will look like into the future. It is enshrined in pomp and circumstance from the start as we take an oath to “Do No Harm” and encrusted with an unspoken culture of medicine that often asks us to give more than we thought was possible. We build systems, evaluate quality metrics and find ways to get through global pandemics all while trying to embrace change. I have even embraced entrepreneurship and reinvention. Two weeks ago I found out how blindsided you can be with just one email.

When private equity comes to your door, it’s ok and important to grieve, and then find a way to move on. We must move on. We must believe we can and will make medicine better. Otherwise what else is left but to grieve.

You see, I am an anesthesiologist and change has been ever present since the start. During residency I remember the in and outflow of physicians whose practices were bought up, transferred, expanded or contracted and the feeling that even my “stable job” as a physician was subject to the whims of private equity and the business of medicine. I vowed to myself that I would make myself irreplaceable and stay true to people and patients. And even with this, I was surprised how affected I was by this change.

Medicine itself is such an experience in embracing change and uncertainty. I often am asked, how long something will take, how do you know how much to give, and how much pain someone will have? When we are confronted with a big event we crave certainty. We want someone to come along side us and say, this is the “right move” and” everything is going to be ok.” I get it. And I unfortunately often joke that if I knew the future, I would have endless fame and fortune. 

Here is what I re-learned two weeks ago, change and uncertainty is everywhere and it is ok to grieve what was. I have had so many emotions the past few weeks and the most prominent one is grief. Grief for the friends and colleagues that will move out of my professional life with whom I have had the privilege to go through this crazy life for a time. Grief for the loss of innocence for my younger partners who feel unstable and unsure. Grief for what will no longer be. This is a death.

These days when I wake up and go to a job that now has an expiration date I go through a rollercoaster of emotions. Much like watching a family go through processing the death of a loved one, I can see myself moving through all the emotions and luckily usually end up with another emotion, gratitude and love. It is hard not to feel it all at the end. And I think we often overlook the other underlying reason for grief. We overlook our love. Without love our grief is less profound. And I realize my grief has been profound. 

As I move to the next phase of my career, I want to focus on this. The gratitude I feel for colleagues that have reached out and offered support. The nurses who pick me up and help me through tough days. The surgeons and other physicians whose knowledge and heart reminds me why I went into medicine. And the partners that shaped me into the physician and leader I am today. I am focusing on this because I am trying to accept that death comes to us all, even our jobs, even when it feels so hard. In my optimistic moments I can remember that this change, this death, can bring new life. And I’m still going to miss this, and only now can I fully appreciate how great it is and to fully grieve.

Here’s to our Phoenix journey as physicians and here’s to new life.

Melissa Welker, MD MPH

Physician, Anesthesiologist, Entrepreneur, and Consultant  

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