(Post originally written Aug 16, 2012)
Yesterday was the first time I’ve ever done postmortem care on a little patient, minus the partial experience I had as a nursing student a few years ago. Surreal hardly begins to describe the experience, from cleaning up a messy room that bears witness to the intense activity involved in coding a patient, to making eye contact with parents who are absolutely raw with grief, to bathing the patient in order to restore some small sense of dignity, to wrapping the patient with a shroud and bringing the patient to the hospital morgue.
Surreal. But it is part of my world. Our world, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.
I was drawn to ICU nursing because I have a strong appreciation for the depth of issues that we face there, and I see it as an incredibly precious time to be a support for not only the patient but their grieving family members as well, particularly when we are dealing with end-of-life care.
But the weight of it all is substantial. The quiet entrance into a room full of grieving family members is the entrance into a space that has just suffered the most violent of all emotional earthquakes, looking for a foundation, is there one left? A space full of disappointment beyond measure but sometimes also hope, anger but sometimes also peace, and exhaustion… always exhaustion. After all, it takes everything you have and everything you are to say good-bye to the heart of your own heart. It takes all your being to search for light in a very dark place. This is the space that I entered as a nurse yesterday. What could I bring? What could I bring, and would it change anything in this space?
I could bring juice and crackers to parents who have thought very little of their own needs for hours, days, weeks, months, years.
I could clean up the room, quietly, gently, respectfully. There are some parts of saying good-bye that you just don’t need to remember, especially in an ICU. I could reduce the sense of chaos in some small way. I wanted such a clean room for them.
I could bring silence. Of course if they had questions, I would do my best to answer. But in terms of consolation for newly grieving parents, I am convinced that less is more. Maybe I say this out of my own lack of tolerance for pat answers. The movement towards resolution with our suffering is simply not as neatly packaged and bow-tied as some might have us think, and I am convinced we need to learn how to get more comfortable with being really uncomfortable in the gray areas – even as people of faith. I am convinced that the gift of silence to a grieving family is the recognition that they have now been thrust into an extremely uncomfortable, gray area, where they will likely stay for a very long time. Trying to move them out of it with premature clichés is counterproductive and potentially very hurtful.
I was so thankful for the accompaniment of an incredibly tender-hearted, skilled social worker who truly bore the brunt of the family’s grief yesterday. I told her how thankful I was that she was there, and that she did what she did so well. Her response was inspiring, sober, and honest. “Some of us are just gifted for this. And it’s a strange gift to have.” I am not an expert. I am awkward and new and scared as a young nurse facing these kinds of big issues. But by the grace of God, I believe I am gifted and called to this work. And I could not agree more. It is a strange gift to have, but it is mine, and it is what I have to offer.