My doctor is on maternity leave, so when I headed in recently for a visit, I was nervous. I’d never met the provider I’d be seeing. And although she could learn my story from my records, I didn’t know how she’d respond once we were together in the room. I dreaded the visit and almost cancelled a couple of times because of cold feet.
When the doctor came in, her eyes met mine and they filled with tears. “I can hardly look you in the eyes,” she told me. “I can’t imagine what you have been through.” Suddenly, I knew I was in a safe space. She wouldn’t provide me with just good medical care; she would care for my soul as well. I could hear the tenderness in her voice. I could see it in her tear-filled eyes.
For the next thirty minutes we talked. She evaluated my symptoms, normalized my concerns, and commended my bravery in simply showing up. “After people lose their loved ones, they often avoid coming to the doctor,” she told me. I’m really glad you came in.” I could honestly say I was glad too.
Going to the doctor after your person dies can be incredibly hard. Whether it’s having to relive the medical sights and smells and sounds or whether you’re just afraid of more bad news. Being vulnerable in that little exam room can feel overwhelming. If your person provided you with moral support, attending a doctor’s visit alone can feel even scarier.
But one of the ways you can love yourself and keep loving your person is by taking care of yourself. Scheduling the appointment, showing up for the test, sitting on the table in that chilly exam room when you’d rather run away. Rather than avoid the doctor, you can seek out one who will carry your story with gentleness, who will honor your heart’s pain even as she works to heal your body’s. It might take a couple tries to find the right fit, but those people are out there.
Here are five things I’ve learned as I’ve navigated healthcare post-loss. I hope they’ll be helpful as you plan your next doctor’s visit.
5 Tips for Going to the Doctor After Loss
1. Find a provider.
If you didn’t like your provider before your person’s death, now is the time to switch to someone new. More than ever you need someone who understands your needs and communicates in ways that are meaningful to you. The search can feel overwhelming, so ask a friend for a recommendation. People love to talk about the doctors who care for them well.
2. Schedule a post-loss visit.
If you have concerns about your own mortality, schedule a reassurance assessment. Doctors regularly offer this kind of care to bereaved people. You’re not the first patient who has worried he’ll have a heart attack or die of cancer after having watched his loved one die. You’re not the first individual who has been concerned about what the stress of grief is doing to his body. A basic physical can offer a baseline assessment of your health post-loss and provide you with reassurance. Your doctor can also recommend healthy practices and connect you to mental health services that will help you process your grief.
3. Don’t avoid your symptoms.
If you’re struggling mentally or physically, let your doctor know. Early intervention produces the best results. Grief wears you down, but you don’t need to simply accept feeling miserable physically. If something hurts, ask for help.
4. Start slowly.
Going to the doctor after loss can be scary. But you don’t need to do it all at once. Start with a telehealth visit that you can do from the comfort of your home. Remind yourself that this first step shows lots of courage. Next, schedule a time in your day to drive over to the doctor’s office and just sit parked in the parking lot. Watch the cars driving in and out. Repeat a phrase like, “I am uncomfortable, but I am safe” or “This step is taking me to where I want to be” or “I am choosing to take care of my body” to remind yourself that even showing up in the parking lot is brave.
When you’re ready, call the doctor to schedule your appointment. Ask them to mark your chart as a bereaved person and let them know you’re anxious about the upcoming visit.
5. Advocate for yourself.
Your first steps of appointment setting are a practice run in advocating for yourself. You can continue to build those muscles by writing out a list of your questions in advance. As you become confident in talking with your doctor, you’ll find you’re more able to articulate what you need, insist on the care you desire, and pursue answers that put your mind at ease. From seeking out a provider who treats you as a whole person to showing up in the office, you are showing you can know and do what is right for you.
This content does not constitute medical advice or replace the assessment of a doctor or mental health professional. If you have questions about your health, please consult your doctor.