I have been present for moments surrounding nearly a thousand deaths, an honor that few experience, but to me, is much more than a job.
As a hospice nurse I have borne witness to some of the most profound moments of people’s lives, the end for some, and the loss, pain and sometimes relief for those surrounding them.
This work fills my life with rich experiences, deep meaning and helps me understand how to really live. I am very aware of what this work does for me, but I was recently reminded of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this care.
At 37 years old, my dear friend Chelsea was too young, too alive it seemed, to experience cancer. But there I found myself, alongside her family, present with her during the last 10 days of her life. Chelsea’s decline was sudden and her symptoms necessitated ICU level care. Even though it was a different environment and circumstances than what I am used to, I learned so much about what it means to hold the responsibility of caring for people in the most raw and unbearable moments of their lives.
What I learned being cared for by nurses:
Small kind things are not small at all. It was the little things that held me up; eye contact, a hand on my shoulder, help ordering pizza when we were all running on fumes.
Silence is golden. In uncomfortable and challenging moments it can be tempting to fill the space, but sometimes the best thing to do is be present and quiet and let everyone experience those moments fully. There was something so supportive about someone standing quiet and still, with a knowing look that communicated, “I know this is awful, and I am here with you.”
Sadness is healing. There is nothing okay about a 37 year old dying and leaving her three year-old son. It is terribly sad. I had no desire to be cheered up and felt most supported by the people who affirmed the pain of the experience and let me have breakdowns and cry. As nurses we love to help people, but It is not always our job to fix things. The harder and more impactful thing to do is be present with people and allow them the space to release.
Getting to know people matters. It can be easy to forget that the sick bodies we care for are real people with rich and important lives. I was most touched by the nurses who called Chelsea by her name even when she was unconscious and those who had a genuine interest in knowing who she was. My favorite nurses were the ones who looked through her pictures, asked questions, listened to stories and read things she wrote.
Chelsea’s nurses inspired me with the loving care they provided for her and her loved ones. Nurses everywhere don’t get enough recognition for answering such an important call.
There is a heart to medicine that not all people have and an art to nursing that not all people know. I believe the art lives in those small kind things, in remaining connected as humans to those we are caring for and the people they love.
This year, in celebration of Nurse’s Week, I am calling on all of us to remember the incredible impact we are capable of having on people, and celebrate our ability to help in those moments with those small kind things that make such a difference in this job.
My hope for myself, and all nurses, is that we find ways to stay connected to the art of this work and committed to the practices that keep us healthy and whole – so that our work can be a meaningful service to others and something that fills us with life.