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The Importance of Disclosure to the Grieving Process

When most people lose a family member or close friend, they go through the "classical" stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance. Grief counselors often say that everyone grieves at a different pace, and not everyone journeys through grief in a linear or straight-line fashion. One day you're doing great, but the next morning feels like you are back at the starting line, and so on. You can even go months or years without crying, but then a certain sound, smell, song, or something else leaves you sobbing. To me, this is what grief is like for a "normal" death....passing of an elderly person, or a sickness that could not be stopped despite the best efforts of healthcare professionals.

What about a tragic death, though? I think when you are dealing with an unexpected passing that could have been prevented, grief can be more challenging, especially if there are no answers, justice, or "closure" for a family. People can become stuck in grief, especially at the anger and depression stages. They have difficulty moving forward with their lives because they are forever back at that moment in time when their loved one was inexplicably taken. Relationships with family members and friends can splinter as some folks are able to move forward, while others cannot. "Why can't Mom just let it go?" can become fighting words within a family or a relationship. People faced with such grief want answers, accountability, and the knowledge that someone or something learned from the tragedy and are doing everything possible to make sure it never happens again -- and these sad souls may never reach this place.

And as tough as a tragic death can be, it can be even worse with a preventable crippling or life-changing injury that drains a family's finances, time, patience, and energy. This might be the most horrific type of grief, especially if there are no answers or help from the offending party.

I want you to think about this column the next time you and your organization are dealing with a potential medical error. Remember this column when a lawyer or claims manager suggests fighting a case that everyone knows is a medical error. Through my work in Sorry Works!, I have met one too many people who are literally trapped in grief because they received no answers, closure, or accountability after a medical error. People lose families and friendships because they simply can't get past what happened at the hospital or nursing home. Good people literally drive themselves and those around them crazy in a fruitless search for the truth. It's torture.

So, the next time you and your organization consider doing something other than disclosure, remember you are literally messing with the mental health of another human being.

As you begin scheduling Grand Rounds presentations for this fall and winter, remember Sorry Works! We provide CME-accredited presentations for physicians, nurses, and the entire organization. For more information, call 618-559-8168 or e-mail

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