by Gerald Schneiderman, MD, D.PSYCH, FRCP(C), DLFAPA, DFCPA
Life goes on in spite of our mortality. Each of us has had people who influenced us and affected the way we live. Some may have been people that we have known, particularly family and friends. Others may have been individuals we read about, or saw on television, or read about on the Internet, past or present.
In my case, when I was a young boy around the age of eight, I would watch my father package parcels to send to relatives in Russia. During the war we would receive many letters from these family members telling us how much they appreciated what we sent them, and that, whatever was going on, all was well, and they were very pleased to receive our gifts. Eventually, the letters and the parcels stopped and it was obvious that something had happened to these people during World War II. My parents never talked about this in our family, and it remained a secret.
After the war, reality intervened. I went to the funeral of an aunt and a grandmother, each of whom I was very fond of. I remember not understanding at my age then that they were gone forever and would not return. These things became more disconcertingly apparent as I became a young man. I ultimately went to medical school, became a physician, and was abruptly thrust into the world where the reality of life and death brought my days of magic to an end.
I remember clearly several examples. When I was at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, friends of my family asked me to visit their son who was dying from Leukemia. I was in the room when the young boy said to his father, “How come my head is so big and so heavy?” I saw him die with the family being present and, at that instant, I became completely aware that death had occurred.
However, as time went by, I managed to avoid thinking of this. But again, at the Montreal’s Children’s Hospital when I was on Ward 6A, I met a young boy named Jean Guy. Jean Guy was dying of liver disease. I had the pleasure of helping him learn how to bounce a ball every day. As I got to know him, I grew to deny the fact that he was dying, focusing instead on the pleasure and laughter we shared as Jean Guy and I would bounce the ball. When the time came for me to leave my rotation and the hospital, I hadn’t forgotten him. I returned at Christmas time to bring him a ball, but found out that Jean Guy had passed away. I will never forget the feeling I had about him being cheated of life, and the fact that death was permanent.
Finally, I moved into psychiatry and my first job was as an intern at the Douglas Hospital, which had an infirmary unit for very physically ill patients. In my mixing of the roles of human and doctor, I thought that I was omnipotent. There was a patient brought in, an older woman with terminal bronchopneumonia and I decided that I was going to save her. I set up the IV’s, had her catheterized and watched over her. I tried to be kind to her, to communicate with her, only to find out that she died the next day.
I recall it once again, feeling shocked, angry and wholly determined not to let people die. Dr. Clifford Skitch was one of my supervisors and he said something to me that morning – and I will never forget it: “Sometimes biology gives out and people die.” It was at that point that, unwittingly, and based on the history of who influenced me, I became focused on bereavement. I was later fortunate enough to begin my studies on bereavement by studying families who lost their children from a fatal genetic disease. At the same time, I started to have my own family and I could not even consider what the loss of a child would do to me.
As I moved along over the years, and my family grew, I began to truly wonder what life was really about. Was it about my career? Was it about the role I played as a doctor, a husband, a father, or a grandfather? Or was it about who I was, on my own? Who I was made me think about what I really valued. And what I valued was being and becoming a person who wisely consolidates his or her life with both decency and reality, with both dignity and self-respect. I lost my omnipotence, but became a human again.
Where does the value of life reside? It is the way that you live your life, the way you handle yourself without abusing others, and without succumbing to self-abuse. In my life, ironically, I came to truly value life because of the career that I once thought made me invincible, but repaired me to humility by reminding me that I am only human.