“The worst thing you can do when you’re sad is try not to be sad.”
A 6-year-old girl named Maria who had lost her mom to colon cancer said this to Laurel Braitman, PhD, while coloring at a grief support session for children that Braitman was facilitating.
It was a concept that had taken Braitman more than a decade to grasp for herself, she explained during a session moderated by best-selling author and Stanford University School of Medicine student Grace D. Li at Learn Serve Lead 2023: The AAMC Annual Meeting, on Sunday, Nov. 5.
Braitman’s childhood, though privileged in many ways as she grew up on a citrus and avocado ranch in Southern California, was marred by her surgeon father’s multiyear experience with cancer and, ultimately, his death by assisted suicide when she was 17.
Braitman’s final conversation with her father before his death was an argument over the phone about her college applications. She’d hung up without saying “I love you” or “goodbye.”
“I took those negative feelings and shoved them right into work and excellence,” said Braitman. “I spent the next 16 years working down a list of all the things he wanted for me.”
She earned a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Science, Technology, and Society, wrote a best-selling book, and ultimately became the director of Writing and Storytelling at the Stanford School of Medicine.
But by her mid-30s, Braitman was exhausted. Though she seemed to be thriving professionally, she noticed she struggled being vulnerable and fled from close relationships. It was while listening to a story about grief support for children on the radio that she realized she had never confronted the grief she held onto from her father’s death. It inspired her to become trained as a facilitator of children’s grief support groups, but beyond that, it shifted the way she lived her life and approached storytelling.
“We are meaning-making animals, and the way we do that is we tell stories … The idea of building a narrative in which there is a cause and effect and there's a takeaway. This is how we humans get through the world,” said Braitman, who wrote about her own grief, not only from the loss of her father, but also her mother’s death after developing pancreatic cancer, in her book, What Looks Like Bravery: An Epic Journey Through Loss to Love.
This idea of processing grief and improving empathetic communication through storytelling is the cornerstone of her work as a teacher at Stanford. She teaches a writing class for medical trainees that includes a retreat where the students get out of the classroom and away from the clinic to a farm, where they learn to use storytelling to share and process their difficult feelings. She also runs low-cost virtual writing workshops twice a month for more than 10,000 people working in the medical profession.
This type of work is particularly important for the medical field, partly because it suffers from a culture that often punishes people for being vulnerable, Braitman said. She strives to make the classes and workshops a space where people can speak openly without fear, including about such topics as mental health, domestic violence, and other themes that can be taboo in medical circles.
Braitman encouraged leaders and faculty members in medical education to build opportunities for vulnerable sharing and storytelling into their institutional cultures wherever possible and not to shy away from the risks that might come from opening up such forums.
“[There’s this fear that] what if we talk about suicide wrong? What if we talk about mental health wrong? So it’s best not to discuss it,” she said. “But what we try to cultivate is: be humble, apologize, but assume that all of the people around you have good intentions … It doesn’t always work, but it’s also assuming there’s no one right way to do this, to be vulnerable, to talk about our whole selves in the training context.”
The results of her efforts have been positive. In a survey taken after one of her workshops, most attendees said that it had helped them find meaning, feel deeper connection to others, and be invigorated to return to daily life.
Li, who is one of Braitman’s students, said the focus on writing has helped her in her medical training journey, not only as a coping mechanism for challenges, but by helping her become a better listener and communicator with her patients and colleagues.
“One thing this work does is uncertainty training,” Braitman said. "The healing professions often have a hard time with gray areas. We shame ourselves for not having the right answer … teaching the humanities along with clinical training provides opportunities to practice wrestling with not having the answer all the time.”
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