Question of the Week:
I work in the line of healing and unfortunately a patient of mine just passed away. I feel as though it was my fault, because though I did all I could, I didn't save her. This is the first time I have experienced this, and was wondering, does Judaism have any insight on dealing with the guilt of losing a patient?
There is a paradox at the heart of all caring professions. This paradox applies to all those who deal with people's real life problems, such as rabbis, doctors, therapists and manicurists.
On the one hand, to help someone you have to actually care for them. It is not possible to truly understand someone's problem if you don't attempt to connect with them, enter their world and see things from their perspective. This means not being clinical and cold, but getting somewhat emotionally involved with the person you are helping.
But at the same time, you can't help someone if you are too involved with them. There is a certain detachment necessary to be able to see the situation clearly. Only by staying removed from the person can you maintain perspective and be able to help.
So there's the paradox. I can't help you if I don't connect with you, and I can't help you unless I am detached.
The skill of true caring is the skill of switching between these two states. You listen to the problem with empathy and sincere feeling. You then diagnose and advise with total objectivity and clarity of mind. When listening you enter their shoes, when responding you go back to your own shoes. You first have to identify with the problem, but then you must dissociate from it to help find the solution.
This can be exhausting. But it is vital, not only for the patient, but also for you. You can't survive emotionally if you personally take on board every problem of every person you meet. You need to be able to sleep at night, be there for your own family, and function as a normal person. You can't do this while bearing the burden of the world on your shoulders. You need to learn to step back.
Time and experience will teach you this skill. You just had your first lesson.
You did all you could to help this patient. The patient died. This is a tragedy, and you are right to feel it. But you are not a part of the tragedy. You were part of making her life more comfortable. In the end, you are no more than an emissary of G-d, sent to bring healing wherever you can. Life and death are not in your hands. All you can do is try to bring hope and meaning to the lives of those around you.
He time to leave this world had come. She was blessed to have you there to support her for her onward journey.