November is the strangest of months. Its days are shorter, darker. It begins with All Saints’ Day, a day of remembering our dead, of loss and grief, followed late in the month by Thanksgiving, America’s celebration of abundance with gratitude.
This year on All Saints’ Day I attended a discussion of health care professionals. The audience included nurses, physicians, pharmacists, social workers, and hospital administrators. The conversation ultimately centered on the emotional difficulties of patient care.
It wasn’t a debriefing as much as collective acknowledgment that, rather than accepting help, some patients or their family members view us as the enemy, sometimes disrupting our best efforts in the name of misguided advocacy.
Nurses spoke of being labeled as “bad” and played against each other by angry patients or family members. Physicians related episodes of verbal abuse from patients or family members demanding inappropriate procedures, medications, or dosing. Some spoke of needing to take refuge to center their thoughts before ordering the appropriate care.
Like most nurses, I’ve experienced similar treatment at the hands of difficult patients, but physicians don’t generally discuss with us how they are treated. Nurses and physicians suffer silently, instead of lending support to each other.
There were no answers. We were simply a large group of health care staff with varying responsibilities, given an hour to talk to each other about the difficulties of our work. Administration was there to listen. Everyone listened.
It was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve encountered as a nurse, as a member of a health care team. A chaplain was asked to close the program. Wisely, she grasped the complexity of the conversation in advance. She chose to adapt a poem, reading it aloud in benediction:
All Saints’ Day Blessing
What we do here is brave.
We travel this land of fragile human-ness,
holding all the questions that fear and fierce love send our way.
We do well to remember that we are both guest and guide.
May you have courage to meet wounded spirits with compassion
in their stunning depths of pain
and stand by them in creative space
where story and suffering join,
new meanings emerge,
old wounds heal.
In this season of saints and souls,
may you have good companions
in this place between the bleak despair of illness
and the unquenchable light of spirit.
May you admire that spirit in those you serve,
no matter how expressed—noble, troubling or unwise—
and keep faith with the gifts you bring.
And may you learn from these frontier places
wisdom for your own heart—
wisdom to welcome the blessings of your kindness
and be held with love in all the seasons of your life.
—Adapted from poems in John O’Donohue’s book To Bless the Space Between Us
As you go forward this November, both in loss and abundance, working at caring for others, may compassion guide your way, and restore your hope.