A Brief Meditation on Love, Loss, and Nursing

Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, writes a monthly post for this blog and works as an infusion nurse in outpatient oncology.

Manicure, by Julianna Paradisi, 2014

Manicure, by Julianna Paradisi, 2014

As a child, I remember being afraid to fall in love, because I didn’t want to experience the pain of losing people I loved when they died. I don’t know why I thought about this; I only know that I did.

Becoming a nurse has done absolutely nothing to alleviate this fear, but life experience has, to some degree.

Nursing is hard not only because we are there for the dying, but also because we are there for the illnesses and deaths of our own, the people we love, too. Making a living by caring for the sick and dying does not exempt us from personal loss. We grieve and mourn like everyone else.

Recently, I sat in a chair in an emergency department, noticing the sparkly red polish of a woman’s holiday manicure as she rolled past on a gurney. Clearly, she hadn’t anticipated an ER visit as part of her holiday celebrations either. On another gurney, next to my chair, lay my husband, getting an EKG, labs, and IV fluids. The prayer, “Please, don’t let it be a heart attack or a brain tumor,” wove silently through my thoughts.

We were lucky. There was no heart disease, no brain tumor. It was viral, just a touch of the flu. Two liters of IV normal saline did the trick.

“Thank you.”

I wish everything could be cured with a couple of liters of normal saline. There are nurses reading this post who recently grieved for loved ones absent from their places around the holiday meal table. No one mentions that all love stories eventually end. The most enduring conclude at death, and there’s the burn. Nurses know there’s no such thing as love without loss.

The trick is to not let the inevitability of death, and its accompanying fear of loss, steal the willingness to love from our lives. Being a nurse does not shield us from vulnerability, and this is good. Vulnerability is part of the human condition, and if we stay open, it lends us the compassion we bring to the bedside while caring for our patients.

Now, in the eyes of the elderly woman, holding the hand of her dying husband, I see the young couple they once were, saying, “I do,” full of hope and courage in the face of the inevitable.

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2016-11-21T13:03:11+00:00 January 14th, 2015|Nursing, nursing perspective|4 Comments

About the Author:

Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.

4 Comments

  1. Eileen Spillane January 21, 2015 at 11:53 pm

    I have split my time as an oncology/ICU nurse and high risk obstetric nurse. I relate very much to your article, having recently been in the ER with my father dx with leukemia. I am so grateful for all the rewarding years as a bedside oncology nurse. As Hannah describes, it is horrendous to have loss in obstetrics. I have seen maternal loss and neonatal loss. You are right, there are no manuals. I have found speaking less and listening more with a reassuring, brave and open heart is what patients and families benefit most from. They particularly need to know they didn’t do anything wrong, which is often where the mind goes.

  2. jparadisirn January 15, 2015 at 11:09 am

    @Hannah, Thank you for commenting. Maternity and pediatric nursing are specialties where hope and willingness to love are strong, so strong that people choose to let their hearts walk around, in the form of their children. When things go wrong in the maternity unit, it becomes one of the saddest places on Earth.

    There are no manuals on how to comfort patients. Let the patient/family take the lead. Sometimes the presence of a nurse is comforting, and you will know. Other times, anger and grief make the presence of a nurse unbearable. In these cases, stay nearby, stay engaged, without hovering. They’ll call you when they need you. You are there to help, but giving them the healthy mother/child they wanted is not within your power.

    Witnessing the suffering of others, and lacking the ability to change their outcome is perhaps the greatest challenge of nursing. @Jillian offers some good advice on dealing with this in her comment above.

  3. Hannah Josephson January 15, 2015 at 1:08 am

    this post really moved me. I see alot of happiness in postpartum where families are being started, but occasionally I have to support patients who have had a loss, either in a previous pregnancy or currently and I must admit I don’t feel competent fully in tapping into comforting them “the right way”. Do you have any tips on how to be a shoulder to lean and how to empathize for this population? Thank you!

  4. Jillian Pinney January 14, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    I think that we all as humans (and especially those who have been through trauma and/or work in helping professions) need to learn how to find and give ourselves lots of emotional support! I think there is a growing trend toward classes and workshops and groups for people to find that support. Look for classes about compassion fatigue and burnout and move toward learning and improving self-care. Find support in your peers and/or in people who have developed self-care skills. We all need each other and I have found relief through learning to connect with myself others in a real and supportive way.

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