Nurses deal with sorrow and loss on a frequent basis, so much so that it becomes an occupational hazard for some specialties. Yet we never quite get used to the feeling. Whether professionally or personally, grief can feel staggeringly overwhelming. It can encompass us in a way that makes it nearly impossible to move forward or to maintain our usual workload. These feelings may be especially distressing during the holidays or at the start of a new year.
When I lost my mother, I could keep moving and managing a façade of normalcy if I was busy and “doing.” Once the planning and organizing phase had passed, huge sobs would engulf me throughout the day, as if I could no longer keep the grief and sadness contained. Friends were understanding, offering hugs and words of kindness, but each hug brought forth another burst of tears. I wasn’t sure what was happening, as I normally could maintain my “cool” and keep working through the pain of loss. With the help of family and friends, I realized I was moving forward, but in a way that was totally different from my expectations. This experience taught me that movement—forward movement—is not always what we expect, especially when dealing with loss. It may be slower, it may be quieter, and it may be very vulnerable.
Talking about loss is an excellent way for nurses to share how they feel, especially when they experience grief that is sudden or uniquely personal. There is always a patient that touches us in ways we don’t quite understand, that rocks our soul and gets under our skin when they breathe their last breath. We carry a piece of them with us and don’t often take the time to reflect on what made them so very special in our lives. We may be on to the next case or the next critically ill patient without pause, building up a shallow veneer of scar over the acute pain of loss, without realizing what it is we are feeling until the next passing. Suddenly, the grief becomes too much, and we need a chance to pause and reflect. For me, the holidays are tough… no parents left to hug, family is far away, and many times close friends are busy working additional shifts. This isn’t unusual; it’s the typical scenario for a nurse.
For a few nurses, looking towards the New Year added to an additional sense of loss. While they were not entirely pleased with the past, an uncertain future could also leave many with uneasy feelings. What types of jobs will be available in the coming years? How much change should we expect?
Yes, moving forward can be tough, but most nurses live a purpose-driven life, which helps. Even through the height of grief, nurses wait for the first breath of spring, when they can plant new life in memory of loved ones or lost patients. Life, it seems, must be treasured and honored, especially once it is gone.