It was just a short three years ago that I experienced it for the first time, and I was one and a half months into my nursing career. Since I was still on orientation, I was lucky enough to have Thanksgiving off. I did however work that Wednesday prior. As I wrapped up my shift at the end of the day, I noticed the sullen, quiet lull that took over the halls of the hospital. Everyone who could be discharged, was. Patients who were still in the hospital were there for one of three reasons: they were either receiving chemo that required them to be there, they were unstable, or they were actively dying. After my shift concluded I jumped in my car for the three hour drive from Michigan to Indiana. During the car ride I began to understand what being thankful truly looked like.
I remember the evening of January 19, 2010 like it was yesterday. I was in my 3rd week of nursing school when I had what I didn’t know was my final conversation with my grandpa. It pained me to speak to him because he sounded so weak. He died early in the morning on January 20. As of yesterday, that day now represents the day my family’s dog Maddie also entered into heaven as well. It was sudden and she was only 5 years old, but she died doing something she absolutely loved, barking. While I adored Maddie and will miss her sweet nature as she rested her head on my leg to be pet, the hardest part was speaking to my mom over the phone and hearing her gut wrenching sobs and not being able to bridge the 160 mile gap between us.
I’m a cancer nurse. I face the reality of the fact that death is very real every single day. I’ve walked with families through what “hospice” and “comfort care” means. I’ve educated family members on ways that we as health professionals know that death is near. I’ve whispered in the ear of patients “it is ok to let go”. I’ve listened to a chest and heard no heartbeat and had to say to families “I’m sorry your loved one is gone”. I’ve taken that body that no longer contains life cleaned it up and placed it in a bag. I’ve rolled it down to the morgue and left it there. I’ve comforted the family as they were grieving. I’ve cried with families as the reality sets in that that person’s soul is no longer on this earth. I’ve filled out the death papers. I’ve called in the chaplain. I’ve seen death up close and personal more than once.
As a nursing student I witnessed a first breath… as a nurse I’ve witnessed many last breaths.
As my grandpa was on his death bed I was speaking to him from 600 miles away. He was ready to go and I knew that and I’m thankful for those final words he said to me as I was pouring over my studies “I believe in what you are doing, you are meant to be a nurse.” I found out he was gone when I was sitting in class. I was in my nursing school’s bathroom sobbing. It was those words though that helped get me through the med-surg class I was convinced I was going to fail. They helped me get through the clinicals where I was in tears. Those words helped me to get up in the days of night shift where my body felt like a wreck. Those words have stayed with me day in and day out for the 2+ years of my career. My grandpa died of cancer. I’ve not only been on the clinical side, but I’ve been on the personal side… multiple times.
There are days it is easy to forget when I’m stressed out what it is like to be the family member wondering what is going on, but I try my hardest to remember that I’ve been there. I’ve been just as worried about many of my family members.
Those words from my grandpa said so many years ago mean so much to me. And it is those words that remind me that I need to grieve. I went years without crying. I went years without letting emotion out. And that was damaging. No matter whether it is grieving the loss of a patient, the loss of a friendship in my life, the loss of a loved one, the loss of precious Maddie, the loss of a familiar life due to a move, or any sort of change that represents loss we must grieve. Because of those words from my grandpa I am reminded I must grieve, because grieving is what helps keep me healthy and able to be the best nurse for my patients and their families.
So while this blog is a bit on the heavy side, as someone who spent years holding the tears in, I want to encourage you to let them flow. I want to encourage you to talk it out if that is what you need to do to process. Work it out if you exercise to process. Whatever it is my dear friend, you deserve to grieve.
Secondly, I want to encourage you to not fear something because it may involve the grief process. Life isn’t easy. Letting go of places, people, jobs, animals, etc. isn’t easy even if it is needed. But I can tell you from experience it is worth it.
And it is with my grandpa’s words in my head and heart saying he believed in what I was doing that remind me that my first duty is to allow myself the room to grieve so that I can walk with others through their grief.