"I just want someone to say, 'that's so shitty' and be beside me and that's all," said my cousin, in a big globby, snotty tear session, a few months after her father died of cancer.
She taught me, in that moment, how to be around pain. Just give all your comfort, put your own business aside, and call a spade a spade: losing your father to alcohol-related cancer in your mid-20s is spectacularly shitty.
When another friend lost her mother to breast cancer at the beginning of law school, I wrote her a message in a blank card and said just that. No platitudes. No "meant to be." No "happens for a reason." No "sincerest sympathies" because I am not a funeral director and this isn't 1986.
The hardest part of medical school has been sitting inside the pain with someone while it swallows them whole. They try to keep it together for you - the medical student, the professional bystander to awful things - but they don't owe you any semblance of composure so if you're good, you let them fall the hell apart. You say things like "you're not alone" and you really, really mean it.
I don't think it gets any easier in residency or practice but maybe it shouldn't because the degree of grief your patient endures doesn't change. They don't care if you're new or old, if this is your eighth death of the week or the first of your career.
Because this is possibly the darkest, deepest moment they'll ever feel. And that moment isn't about you.
Apparently there is a name for this approach: Comfort In, Dump Out or The Silk Ring Theory.
And this card company gets it good.
This year was the seventh anniversary of my uncle's death. My beautiful, talented and intrepid cousin is full of love and curiousity and hope. But that time in her life still persists in the crevices of her heart and sometimes she needs to talk about it and I still repeat, just like she taught me, "I love you. I'm here for you. That's so shitty."