Doctors Who've Deliver Death Notifications Reveal Their Saddest Stories


Doctors Who've Deliver Death Notifications Reveal Their Saddest Stories
Photo by Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Delivering the news of someone's death must be one of the hardest aspects in medicine. Thankfully we have Reddit which allows us to hear their stories.

TheAb__asked, Doctors of Reddit, what was the worst reaction, happy (in a psycopathic way) or sad, that you have ever gotten from telling someone their "loved one" has/will die?

Submissions have been edited for clarity, context, and profanity.


I'm not crying, you're crying.


Worked on a medical-surgical for a few years at the beginning of my career. Sure, we had a few patients here and there that were just there for observation.

My first cancer patient I lost in my career seemed like one of those. When he was admitted to our floor, he was always cheerful, polite, and never admitted feeling ill in any way. One of the nicest people you could want to meet. I remember him because of this. Dude had stage 4b lung cancer, and never once asked for ANYTHING.

Over the course of a few months, I got to know him better. As it turns out, he thought he had a bad cold and found out he was dying shortly. It's shitty, but that's life sometimes I suppose. It ain't always pretty. When he found out, he seemed at peace with it all. Then he began working like a madman from his bed.

Every time I went in to his room to check on him or give him meds, he was writing in a notebook. Only once did he receive visits whole he was with us, and it was his wife, who was brought by a friend. She'd never learned to drive because she never wanted or needed to. Dude spent his entire life taking care of her, completely and totally. As it turns out, all the writing in notebooks was him leaving her notes of how to do things. He'd literally taken care of her since they were in high school. She didn't even know how to use a dish washer. Nothing.

I think of him from time to time, when I've had a rough go with love in my life. The times I asked this man about his wife were some of the few times I saw his face light up with delight. It's nice to think that love like that exists.


Taking the news like a pro.


The ones that really stick out are the people who take the news with quiet dignity. Had one patient present with dermatomyositis. 20% of people with this have an underlying malignancy. I told the patient and family this and asked if they wanted to look—they said yes. Did a CT scan, showed multi-focal tumor burden in the liver. Biopsy showed pancreatic adenocarcinoma unfortunately, so Mets to the liver = stage 4. Broke the news to the patient and her family and her response was "thank you for telling me. That must have been really hard for you to do."

Pancreatic adenocarcinoma seems to always take the most gentle people :(gettheread

Get a translator next time.


One of my patients had squamous cell carcinoma in situ on his lip that I caught early and was actually removed entirely in the biopsy. We still wanted him to get topical chemotherapy on the area to make extra sure we got everything. For those unaware, it's like a lotion and mostly only has local skin side effects. It was actually good news, but I wanted to reinforce that he's at a higher risk of developing new cancers and it's possible that his children have the same genetic predisposition, so he needs to make sure he and his kids need to be using sunscreen and lip balm with sunscreen it in, plus 6 month follow up.

He was a native Spanish speaker but his English seemed above average so I didn't want to use a translator if I didn't have to. Well, judging from the years and how upset he was, I guess I misjudged his English skills...

He did a good job at picking up the buzzwords. He heard "cancer", "more cancer", "chemotherapy" and "his children have a higher chance of getting cancer", but he missed all the important context.

He thought was going to die and his kids were too. I quickly got a translator and explained everything again. He was still distraught over the emotional rollercoaster moments ago but he understood what was going on.

So my worst reaction was a wrong reaction because I f*cked up


Note to self: make sure my head rest is at the proper height.

Work in orthopaedics. Had a car crash involving 7 family members. Youngest was a 9 year old with open fractures to both legs. Rushed straight into theatre, but the child had developed rapid onset sepsis, mixed with some blood lost and a PE. Died on the table before surgery could begin properly. Despite a large number of staff as you can imagine, we couldn't do any more. The father was the last to find out, as suffered a fractured skull and was moved to a different trauma hospital (crash occured halfway between the two hospitals, patients were split up due to rush/need at the time). He had a bleed on the brain and was in ICU for a week. Wife didn't tell him until he left ICU out of fear it would set him off/hinder recovery.

I heard when he found out, he self discharged. I hope he is alright now and getting help, but unfortunately being in a different area it's hard to find out. I believe it was actually his wife that was driving.

Finally as a side note, please ensure that your headrest in a car is adjusted correctly. I see a lot of head, skull and neck injuries frequently because of this. Only today I was seeing a fractured C5 because of this. It's something your only have to do once if your driving the same car all the time, but in combination with a seat belt it really is there for a reason, not just for comfort.


If this ain't hell...

I was working the burn unit. Guy comes in, MVC head on collision the other driver was drunk and crossed lanes. His wife was killed in the crash. Every time he woke up he asked where his wife was, and he had to be told. He would just start saying "42 years" and sobbing. I can't imagine what it was like for that guy, having to remember every single time you wake up. He was in a lot of pain, AKA lots of dilaudid, which contributed to his confusion. Slowly over time it sank in. Very heartbreaking to watch.


Trying to not picture this but okay.


I was at a delivery where both mom and baby were having problems. As we were saving baby the OR team was trying to save mom. We did, they didn't. As we were leaving with baby to the NICU the OR doc was telling dad and his family that his wife didn't make it. He saw his baby and asked when mom could begin breast feeding. Grandma fell to the floor crying but dad just had this look like he was just waking up and not hearing what was going on. Seeing him visit the NICU was just so sad, you could see him trying to hold it all in while visiting his baby.


They ain't getting it...


Thankfully I wasn't the only one in the room, but we spent 3 hours on and off explaining to a family that we couldn't transfer their deceased child to another hospital. I think they believed the kid was in a vegetative state, and that we just gave up on them, instead of the reality that their kid was dead.


Some serious spousal shade...

Deputy here. I've been to a quite a few deaths and I've only seen one that was "happy". The husband was a lifetime alcoholic and was on hospice for various related illnesses. When we arrived he was DOA. She told us he went to go to the bathroom gasped and literally dropped dead.

She was at first sad. The more she talked about him we could tell he was a real bastard. She pretty much couldn't make a move with out him. He wouldn't let the grand kids come over and they lived next door. When the funeral home came to collect the body they had difficulty getting him loaded up. The wife remarked "Even dead he still finds a way to be a pain," I couldn't help but grin when she said it.


Cherish every moment...


Intern year of residency while working on the vascular surgery service. ER pages about an older lady who was being transferred in from an outside hospital with an aortic aneurysm rupture.

Aortic aneurysm ruptures have a really poor outcome, but the interesting thing is that while an individual is actively dying from it they are still coherent and not in (relatively) terrible pain. About a couple minutes of me leaving the ER room, the patient died. Anyways the daughter and best friend arrived, presumably being with her at the other facility's ER previously. I took them to a seperate room away from all the hustle of the ER and let them know. Of course they were surprised because "we were just talking to her" and "she didn't seem to be in that much pain". Both of which are true statements, aortic aneurysm ruptures really are a relatively low pain way to die. But can be pretty shocking for the loved ones to register in a short amount of time.

Alternatively it was the 40-something year old mother of 2 who had been admitted for nausea and vomiting and died of multi-system organ failure (heart attacks, strokes, ischemic colitis, pulmonary embolism, etc) because of a rare clotting disorder than decided to manifest itself all at once for the first time in her. Telling a family that someone that young and previously healthy that not only is the mother going to die, but that they should have their doctor look at screening them for a rare condition is no fun.


That's enough, Internet.


Elderly male patient decided to willingly opt out of respiratory support machine. Lovely man, his time inevitably came around 6 hours later, early in the morning. His granddaughter (young girl around mid-20s) the only family member in the hospital at the time was so devastated she climbed into the bed with him and wouldn't leave the ward. Endless crying, shrieking and asking for her Grandad to wake up... heart breaking stuff. Staff and doctors tried to coerce her to take some time outside but she wouldn't leave the bed. Eventually the rest of the family arrived and talked her out but took a good few hours.


Unfortunately people do "just die." That's how death works.

When I worked in a large inner city ER this family had brought in their grandmother who had went to take a nap in the family living room on her family chair. Well when she didn't wake up for 8-10 hours, the family activated EMS and brought her to me. She had been dead for half the day at this point which was very obvious so we called it, the lady was stiff at this point. When I called the family into the room (all 20 of them) to tell them their 88yo without a decent organ in her body on dialysis had indeed died they accused me first of lying then second of murdering her. Police had to be called as a particularly boisterous 14yo female was being very threatening and repeating what a lot of families say "she was fine this morning, people don't JUST DIE.' Unfortunately that is how everyone dies.


Sometimes there's nothing more doctors can do.


This was three years ago, when I'd recently started training in the hospital, and I was placed in a consultation room for a week. The doctor had told me the next patient had received many treatments for her bowel cancer but the cancer was coming back too fast. There was nothing the hospital could offer her anymore, so that day we were to tell her how she only had an estimated three montha left to live.

They walked in the room and she looked as if she already understood what we were about to say, but the husband was distraught. He was in tears, and I had to do my best to offer advice and comfort as the doctor had already gone back to his paperwork. It was one of the most harrowing experiences I've had in the hospital to date, hearing his desperate pleas of whether there was anything we could do to help. His wife did her best to console him too, but I could see she needed the support too.

I'm really sorry I couldn't do anything to help, old friend. I hope your wife rests peacefully.


Going out in style.


I was doing my internship on a palliative care ward where we were occasionally supporting patients through the medical assistance in dying process. One wise-cracking patient was set to pass away that day. All of the preparations had been made and he had said his goodbyes to his family. There was a bit of a delay and the family had stepped out of the room momentarily. A poor nursing student assumed that the medically-assisted death had already been performed and walked into the patient's room. All of a sudden, he sat up in the bed, stared at her and exclaimed, "WHY AREN'T THE DRUGS WORKING!!!?" She ran out of the room terrified with him cackling in the background.


People should be allowed to die with dignity and on their own terms.


Best was talking with the family matriarch.

Strong business woman whose children had taken over several businesses in the town. Very rich influential family.

We originally admitted her as a stroke but on further review found multiple brain metastasis. Family wanted everything done. This was a mentally alert woman who at 94 they wanted to have chemo and surgery.

I discussed her options with her including no aggressive treatment. She elected for this. She went into hospice and died peacefully a few months later.

She asked what I would do. Having just gone through this with my grandmother and grandfather the year before I gave her both sides of the story. Doing everything and buying a few months but dealing with surgery and illness. Or just pursuing comfort measures.

I think she was happy with the decision.

I think the family was upset with me for giving her that option.


Such loneliness.


So many traumatic events it is hard to recall all the details or to pick one, but this one was different, no trauma no emergency.

We told this friendly guy of his diagnosis that will kill him soon, weeks to months. Then asked who we should talk to or who can be his guardian. He only had his boss from his recent job. No family, no friends. He was all alone. His boss visited once early on.

I thought about that a lot. Still do.


This is a healthy way to handle death.


So here's a weird one that's stuck with me.

Had a patient in his 50's die in a single room on the ward while surrounded by his Portuguese family. Mostly women; wife, sisters, in-laws, all in their 40's at least.

We knew he was deteriorating and had no plans to resuscitate if and when he died. A few days into his admission he passes away while the family were visiting. I get called in by the nurse to confirm the death and everyone in the room is completely silent and watching me. I confirm what they already know and everyone just mobs me, hugging me, kissing my hands, kissing my cheeks and thanking me profusely for looking after their relative. Not what I was expecting at all, it was like a sudden collective release of tension in the room. Somehow I think they were just relieved he wasn't suffering anymore.


Baby death.

Nursing assistant, so I'm a bit down the chain of command but still relevant.

Had this Lithuanian couple come in to the ED, couldn't speak a word English. They'd come on one last holiday before their baby came, except they were rushed straight off the plane into an ambulance as the woman had severe abdo cramps and heavy bleeding. The doctor had to translate that the baby had died. I will honestly never forget those screams for the rest of my career. Like, blood curdling, pure heartbroken screams from both of them. Honestly, the whole day every single staff member just was so shaken and upset.


Are kids replaceable?

I work in a pediatric cancer hospital and once when we were talking to a mother about her two year old's daughter's poor prognosis, she said 'as a mother, all I can really think of now that I'm losing a child is when I can start trying for another one'.

It was definitely one of the most uncomfortable reactions I've ever heard, I know grief is complicated but I will never forgot because no one in the room knew how to respond.


No one wants to go out on the toilet.

28 year old, metastatic breast cancer.

The wailing on the oncology ward when she was told there's no more chemo to be offered was bad, but to see the 2 young kids stand there wide eyed and not really take it in was just...something else. In my first year of being a doctor, and had to be counselled by the nurses that kids behave a certain way. Thank god for nurses.

Also had a young guy die suddenly in the toilet (medical patient on a surgical ward). Having to call the family at 2 am in the morning, and then to have the 3 young kids be in absolute shock was also surreal. The nurses locked the entrance to the ward as the eldest child was 16 and they were worried she might run.


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