Edvard Munch and Medicine

Edvard Munch (1863–1944) Dead Mother and Child (1897-99), oil on canvas, 105 × 178.5 cm, Munchmuseet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944) Dead Mother and Child (1897-99), oil on canvas, 105 × 178.5 cm, Munchmuseet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

I haven’t done an art post in a long while and felt compelled to do one after having the difficult talk with a patient and his family.

If you know a bit about me, you would know that I love the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch. His genre of painting is described now as Expressionism. Munch was fascinated by death and its affect on family. It came from his personal experience of losing his mother and his sister to Tuberculosis when he was a child and the memories of their loss haunted him through his life. This painting is part of his Frieze of Life, a series of paintings depicting different stages of human life cycle. It depicts Death... a child is covering her ears, shocked by the presence of death and in denial, the adults are faceless and are mourning in their own way, and the deceased has an expression of calm on her face.

I think about Munch’s work often during my time as resident.

I have to talk to families about some harrowing stuff and sometimes it involves talk about mortality. It might be one of the hardest part of my jobs but I go in knowing that sometimes I cannot predict what may happen. Munch’s painting represents quite well the level of emotions in the room. Sometimes the loved ones are in complete denial when I mention anything that they are not ready to hear yet, sometimes the families and patients are quite stoic and take the bad news with dignity and thank me for my honesty, and sometimes there is a level of apathy or disinterest, when the patients or family members just don’t react the way I would have expected myself to react if I ever receive bad news.

Why does it matter? Well for one, death comes to all, but that’s not the reason why I think of Munch. I think of how it is ok to be in denial, anger, apathy, bargaining or acceptance stage when receiving the morbid news. Everyone is entitled to their response and it based on how they grew up and what their personal circumstances are. Munch’s work has taught me how to deliver bad news and things to anticipate when discussing difficult issues. Death may come to all but not everyone has the same connection to death as Munch. 

By Mir Ali, DO