Death…unfortunately a part of life. It’s messy, awful, devastating and absolutely heartbreaking but something that can be beautiful, honoring, and poignant. Death exists at the forefront of my mind due to my career where I am often gifted to be with families and patients as they grapple with big decisions: quality or quantity of life, what matters more. Who determines what makes a life worth living? Who decides when and how someone should die? Who will be there with that person to hold their hand, clean their mouth, and be the last voice and touch that person will experience in this life?
As an intensive care nurse Death has become a causal acquaintance, I may not enjoy our time together but acknowledge his presence. Often I acknowledge how much Death’s frequent presence influences how I view Life. I describe the specific way that people who work in similar careers live split lifestyles. I recognize in myself and my colleagues a desire to ride the high-highs and the low-lows of life, soaking everything in but also acknowledging a fear of anything and everything. My coworkers are some of the most adventurous people I know: back country skiing, ultra marathons, hang gliding, traveling, and about any other activity you can think of. The flip side of this displays the lifestyle of people who have seen the tiniest things blow into the biggest catastrophes: highest grade helmets, best safety tested vehicles, constant weather updates for driving conditions, overzealous cleaning or hygiene and about every other safety conscious activity possible. The irony stands that when I’m living my high-adventurous, come-as-it-may side is often when I’m thinking of Death, knowing that he could reappear at any moment. When I’m living the safety freak, over-protective life reflects my relationship with Life and a desire to continue living and experiencing the highs and lows.
I recognize in myself a slightly warped view of the world due to my close relationship with every aspect of life. I long for a society that encourages open communication about death, dying and all parts of life. All too often the caregiver has to have these difficult discussions with patients or their families at the worst, most stressful parts of someone’s life. Frequently the decisions about quality of life versus quantity of life are made by family members or someone else. The worst part of my job is not the frequency of death, it’s the endless procedures and devices inflicted on patients to prolong their life and not giving them a dignified, peaceful death.
I have learned lots about death, dying, and grief, caring for others in a time a grief. I have witnessed the beauty and peace that can occur with death. I struggle to process what all of this means to me or why I needed to write it. I recognize that one of the biggest factors contributing to second victim phenomenon or PTSD from my job revolves around this struggle. I struggle to continue to “care” for a patient when it does not seem the most humane or compassionate choice. I struggle to give myself emotionally to patients and families and feel the grief and pain of loss with them. I struggle to understand how to be “normal” and not compartmentalize my feelings while I’m not at work. I struggle with the process and caring for people while trying to cope with the pain and devastation that exists in our world.
I don’t know where this lands for my understanding of death and processing of grief. I also admit I don’t know how to care for others in their times of pain. I want people to know the grace and comfort that can be possible with death. I want to be open with my own traumas in life to support others through theirs. I want to provide the most compassionate trauma and grief centered care that I can offer. I want to establish a safe space for myself and others to lessen the pain and prevent further tragedy.
I promise to provide a safe space for myself, compassion and understanding, stillness in times of need. I promise to slow down and work to empathize with the grief of those around me. I promise to provide compassionate care acknowledging that everyone takes a different journey with their health and well-being.