Holding Space for Rhythms of Professional Grief: Part 2 of 2

In my last blog post, I shared my short-term response to the common questions I get as a pediatric ICU nurse, “How do you deal with all the sad things you encounter at work? How do you separate your personal life from your work life? How do you stay in that environment and not completely fall apart?”

I shared some ways I’ve learned to recognize my short-term rhythms of professional grief when I emerge from an intensely sad shift with a patient and family. I’ve learned that I can’t actually draw a hard line of separation between my work and personal life because the work is too intimate. And so, I give space for the professional grief to find catharsis, usually the day after a very hard shift.

While recognizing and giving space to this short-term rhythm of professional grief has been incredibly helpful, it isn’t in and of itself enough for the long haul because the work as a whole is too heavy, too intense to be adequately consoled by just intermittent short-term catharsis. To work under constant demand that is perpetually borderline emergent (if not full-blown emergent and acutely characterized by profound crisis and trauma) is to constantly work with weight upon weight on my mind, heart, body and soul as a PICU nurse. Without adequate, focused rest and restoration, the collective weight accumulates until I find myself unable to function in healthy, much less meaningful ways.

A few years into being a PICU nurse, I also gave birth to two children in two years and was toggling back and forth between this intense work environment and the unrelenting demands of motherhood and housework with very young kids at home on my “days off” (oh how I laugh at that phrase). I was hitting a point with the demands of work and home life that I was perpetually frayed, irritable and joyless in my roles. I was operating in the red in every context. Yet I found I was also shaming myself for not being tougher at work, nicer to the people who meant the most to me, stronger in my soul, or happier all around.

One evening I shared with my close group of girlfriends how I felt I was crumbling under the demands of life, and they unanimously agreed I needed to get away on a personal retreat. They knew my strong introverted needs to have quiet, alone time. They also knew my tendency to feel over-responsible for everyone around me. I loved their suggestion to get away, but ridden with guilt at the thought of leaving my family for a few days, I said I’d be willing to look into booking a hotel room a few miles from home “so that I can help in case my family needs anything.” They yelled “NO” at me and said I needed to let my husband take care of everything at home and set clear boundaries on what constituted an emergency before anyone could call me. Reluctantly, I looked up places later that evening and discovered a quiet retreat location with private bungalows about two hours from my home. With my husband’s wholehearted blessing, I booked a bungalow and immediately knew this was exactly what I needed. When I arrived a few weeks later, after setting down my things, I went to the balcony where the sun was setting and immediately began to weep. All the grief I was carrying from work, all my burnout, all my questions, began to pour forth in lament and prayer. It was the most restorative few days I’d had in years, and from that point forward, I knew what I had to do.

I have made it a regular habit to go on this personal retreat twice a year. I don’t do “touristy” activities, I don’t spend much time in restaurants so I can avoid the requisite superficial chit-chat, and I only allow myself minimal time online or watching shows at the end of the day. I won’t allow myself the distraction I so often indulge in during regular days at home, because distraction never really takes away the burdens. I spend my time with great intention: I have heart work to do, heart surgery if you will. I have wounds and questions to tend to, thoughts to unravel through reading and writing, and lament to offload to God through prayer, groaning and weeping.

Sometimes I just rest, sit on a bench for an hour or two doing nothing but watching the miracle of the sun going down and the stars coming out without any of my help. I pay attention to the way my heart beats with no effort of mine. I finally allow myself to be still, to be sustained and held by the Creator of this world, the Lover of my Soul. He meets me, and He holds me, just as He gently puts the sun to rest at the end of the day, and beautifully unveils the stars as night falls. I realize the world goes on as I am still. It is humbling, comforting and freeing.

I can’t offload all of my burdens, and the demands of life are waiting for me when I return home, but I can offload enough so that I am so much healthier when I return. This committed practice to take regular personal retreats with intention has made all the difference in the world.

I will close with this. In a recent Narrative Ethics class, my classmates and I discussed the ethical practice of self-care. As I shared this practice of a personal retreat, one classmate who is a Palliative Care physician reflected back some thoughts which I found to be such an accurate observation as to why these retreats are as helpful as they are: I think in an environment that realizes (often sarcastically so) that “vacation” cannot fix burnout, it is hopeful to see how intentional time that meets your needs (“strong introverted needs to have quiet”), occurs at regular intervals, has protected boundaries, and is directed toward healing activities (lament and prayer) can provide important restoration. Your time is much different than how people envision “vacation” (one time, stressful preparation, expensive/exacerbating financial strain, with family present or without personal boundaries). Thank you for this example of how not only important self-care is, but how effective it can be.

In my next blog post, I want to spend some time thinking through the ways we shame ourselves for not being tougher, nicer, stronger, happier, when we walk and work under tremendous burdens as healthcare professionals. How can we reframe the ways we assess and care for ourselves in the expectations we have of ourselves?

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