A doctor’s decision to attend his patients’ memorials

Memorial candle in church
A Boston doctor says he finds closure by attending patients' memorial services. Image: Getty/BuckleyPics

Boston-based doctor John Loughnane, M.D., said he’s not sure when he started going to his patients’ funerals, wakes and memorial services—but it’s been important to him.

“My memory is that I thought it would be a nice gesture to bring closure and to honor the shared, deep connection that had developed between us as I cared for them as a primary, hospitalist or palliative care doctor. What I quickly learned was that being present at these memorials gave me much more than I could ever reciprocate,” Loughnane wrote in a CommonHealth commentary.

Whether to attend a patient’s funeral is a personal decision for doctors, and there isn’t a right or wrong answer. In a survey last year, 57% of doctors said they had attended at least one funeral of a patient.

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Loughnane said the time he spends with patients’ families and friends at memorials helps him acknowledge the loss and move on to try and help other patients. “The practice of medicine, especially for those of us who care for the actively dying, is full of graveyards that we revisit,” wrote Loughnane, who founded Commonwealth Care Alliance’s Life Choices Palliative Care Program.

As the medical field deals with the problem of physician burnout—typically recognized as emotional, physical and mental exhaustion brought on by prolonged stress—it’s important that doctors allow themselves to grieve when a patient dies. Attending a patient’s funeral may help doctors deal with their emotions and comfort the patient’s family.