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The Nurse Card

Moving Forward After Loss

Published January 26, 2017 9:34 AM by Diane Goodman

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.

3 comments

This article speaks directly to me!  I am a retired Oncology nurse.  My husband died in December as to my mother.  Both happened many years ago but still stay with me.  The holidays are difficult and not until the new year has started do I feel like a weight is lifted.  I have seen many patients die and while often I have felt that death was a release for them, the sense of loss was/is still there.  Nursing is a special vocation even though it leaves footprints in our lives.

Nancy Evans, Rn February 1, 2017 12:04 PM
Houston TX

For me it was the loss of a baby on my shift, my watch. After he had been fussing all morning long, and nothing I could do would calm him down. Finally it was too quiet. I went to check on him and he was gone! This occurred during the Thanksgiving holidays several years ago. Though I too have lost my parents, the death of that precious baby still haunts me to this day!

Maria , PACU - RN, RSC February 1, 2017 7:22 AM
Ridgefield CT

What. Great message. It came in when I needed to hear it the most. Life has been really difficult for me after the loss of my mother in June. Work does help keep me busy but I definitely have had my share of uncontrollable sobbing and days where I have no strength to get out of bed. The other night at work as I transferred a patient to ICU, I saw two men from the morgue with the gurney. My heart stopped and skipped a beat reminding me of when my mother was picked up from the hospital she was at. It was the hardest moment in my life to accept. Yes, there are patients that have touched my life too. Life is to be respected, honored and treasured.  It makes our job that much more special taking care of patients.

Christian , Hospital - RN, Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center January 31, 2017 2:45 PM
Palm Beach FL

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About this Blog


    Diane M. Goodman, APRN, BC, CCRN, CNRN
    Occupation: Clinical Educator
    Setting: Advocate Condell Medical Center, Libertyville, Ill

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