Joe’s funeral: How little we know about anyone

Chris Hogan

17/07/2019 2:09:05 PM

Dr Chris Hogan reflects on how much we don’t know about other people – and wonders what precious stories are being lost.

Candles at a funeral.
It was only at the funeral that Dr Chris Hogan realised how little he knew about his friend.

I went to Joe’s funeral today.
I will not say his real name for this is a story about people and how often we know so little about them. Besides, his achievements will soon be given public recognition enough.
I thought I knew Joe well. After all, I first met him 48 years ago. I went to school with his son who was then and is still now, my friend.
I knew Joe was a doctor, that he had been in Vietnam and that he belonged to a family of prominent but quiet achievers.
I first met him when my life was incredibly busy. In med school, there was so much to do and so much to learn. I learnt about the world, about medicine, about people and about myself.
The more I learnt, the more I found that there were other things to discover and explore. Truly it is written that ‘Only the ignorant are certain’. 
By chance, Dr Joe once lectured to us. His quiet manner belied a razor-sharp mind and a firmly embedded practical appreciation of the human condition. But he was one among many mentors and at the time, others had skills that I thought were far more relevant to my needs.
I crossed his path often enough and our meetings were always cordial, but the world turned.
Then he aged and in the fullness of his years, he died.
It was only at Joe’s funeral that I suddenly realised that I did not know him at all, even after almost 50 years.
Childhood, adolescence, courtship, fatherhood, hobbies, involvements and medical achievements – all were laid out before us.
I was embarrassed. Why had I never sat down and discussed his life with him? We had so many things in common.
He had faced similar issues and challenges that I had. We had common hobbies. And he was inspiring – he did things that I could only think about. In other areas, he had faith and certainty, whereas I only had doubts. What conversations we could have had.
If I knew so little about Joe after so long, how much less do I know about strangers?
Unless we try, we only hear a small part. As doctors, it is to our advantage to get as much of the whole story as we can. 
When I speak to practising GPs I am so impressed about what they do. They say they are just doing their job.
In my post-GP life, I have had the opportunity to speak to so many from our profession. And in that I have realised just how much we do – and how much we do alone.
When we work away in our closed rooms, we have nothing to compare ourselves with except for perfection. And who can withstand that comparison? 
I have always been in awe at the power of stories. They have power to heal, to guide, to comfort, to explain and to inspire.
We must not waste the achievements and experience of our colleagues. Even knowing what failed can save us from mindlessly repeating a well-intentioned error and save us enormous time. We may be able to finish what they started.
I am one of the RACGP’s historians. Our job is to remember the past, to inform the present and improve the future. One of our joys is to collect the stories of GPs – warts and all.
If you attend a GP’s funeral, please ask if the person giving their eulogy could forward a copy to the RACGP History committee. They are so important. We would be delighted to collect living stories as well.

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Barry Fatovich   18/07/2019 6:59:36 PM

Chris raises many important issues. I am also a long standing GP and Palliative Care Doctor and attend the funeral's of patients I have looked after for a long time, and some patients I have come to know well through being so closely involved with them and their families as they approach the end of their lives. It is always a privilege to be a part of this experience. I find that I discover things I did not know about my patients and ask myself how I can get to know my living patients better and learn their stories. We underestimate the power of listening to the stories around us. I have also found that families appreciate my taking the trouble of attending a funeral and personally it helps me to make my own farewell to the people I have cared for. Thank you for raising some very valuable issues Chris;
Barry Fatovich