By Jonathan Dickman, MD
At the end of October, my family lost our matriarch as my grandmother died from complications following a car accident. My grandmother would have been the first to tell you that she never had any groundbreaking accomplishments in life. And yet, physicians, lawyers, teachers and scholars kept coming to mourn the loss of Miriam Dickman. In witnessing this outpouring of support for my family, I started to ask: What could make this unassuming person so cherished? In this reflection, I discovered that she had many important lessons to teach us that seem basic but are essential to living a healthy life. I will share a few of the lessons she taught us:
Lesson 1: Care for others. My grandmother was a selfless caregiver. When younger, she raised a family, made sure everyone felt comfortable at her home. When older, she cared for her husband when he was sick. Later in her 90s, she was still preparing food for her guests, making sure they were nourished and entertained. Beyond her family, she welcomed people from the community whenever they felt like stopping by her home. After her passing, no one forgot how special it was to visit her house.
Lesson 2: Listen. You would never find my grandmother distracted by a smartphone during conversations. When she conversed, her focus was on you. She made you feel important. Despite her difficulties with hearing later in life, she listened, asked follow-up questions and would be honestly interested in your life. She would sit on her couch and the conversation was always about you (as she did not want to talk about herself). Now that technology and social media is everywhere, it seems that we find ourselves searching for someone like her to truly listen to us without distraction. Now that she is gone, my family realizes how rare it is to have someone want to understand us completely. Her ability to listen was a reason why so many people felt connected to her.
Lesson 3: Be supportive. My grandmother supported the hopes and dreams of her friends and family. She would make donations to help others pursue their dreams. Perhaps more powerfully, she would verbally express her support during conversations. Her support never hinged on success or winning. Even if you failed, she was there to support you. She inspired others to reach for the stars and be OK with landing on the moon… or earth for that matter. Whatever the outcome, we knew that she would always stand in our corner. Thus, although she would never claim to have any significant accomplishments in her own life, my grandmother was indirectly responsible for the success of others around her.
Taken together, my grandmother understood something that can take others a lifetime to realize – that a fulfilling life is not about individual achievements, but rather about what we can accomplish together as a community. As physicians, we are humbled when we realize that our influence over the health of our patients is much smaller than the influence of the surrounding community. Thanks to the community building she did in her life, the 97 years my grandmother lived were vibrant. When we care for, listen to and support our family, friends and neighbors, we build a community that enhances the health of everyone involved, including our own. To keep her in my memory, I plan to take her lessons and incorporate them into how I interact with others. Through this effort, I hope to make my grandmother proud. I have realized that sometimes those who live ordinary lives can leave the most extraordinary impressions on others.
Jonathan Dickman, MD, PhD is a family medicine doctor at Allina Health United Family Physicians, 233 Grand Ave, Saint Paul, MN 55102. Phone: 651-241-5200
By Jonathan Dickman, MD