Can Grieving Loss of Idealism in Nursing Give Room for New Hope?

It is no secret by now that the pandemic has dealt blows to morale in nurses like never before. The issues are being voiced everywhere – nurses find themselves overworked, understaffed, underpaid, disrespected by both the healthcare system and many in the general public in sometimes deeply startling ways. As professionals who come to work every day looking to help, restore, and heal, we found ourselves losing our idealism about our very own profession. On top of our ongoing grief over our patients – both COVID- and non-COVID related – we’ve also felt our own loss in watching increasing numbers of beloved colleagues either leave the profession or leave our units often because of issues highlighted by the pandemic. This is not at all to say that their reasons for leaving are wrong. It’s only to say that for those of us who stay, we feel the grief of seeing them leave and wonder anew about our own longevity in the work, even as we support their decisions and wish them well.

This has left me inevitably asking myself why I still stay. My motivations for staying in this work and in my current workplace are 1.) To provide meaningful, helpful care to my patients and families; 2.) To work in a supportive environment that is life-giving and not demoralizing; 3.) To earn decent wages that support my family and allow us to pursue goals and support others in ways that are meaningful to us as a family; 4.) To serve the general public with my expertise, gifting and skill set.

But the reality is, I’ve lost my idealism about all these motivations in certain ways. Some of that is just a natural by-product of experiencing the hard realities of nursing over time. Much of that loss, however, has been exacerbated or brought to light anew because of the pandemic. My work doesn’t always feel meaningful when family members berate us even as we work day and night to save their loved ones from diseases that were easily preventable. I feel demoralized when we can’t provide the quality of care we want to because of dire staffing shortages. It is hard to live in a city with exorbitant costs of living when wages for me as a long-time local resident and employee are a fraction of those for temporary travel nurses just passing through. I don’t know how to serve a public that now violently insists they are the experts with their bunk research and rampant misinformation.

There is a deep grieving I am doing as I let go of my ideals, while still seeking to work towards the preservation of meaning, a healthy work environment, decent and fair compensation, and a personal sense of valuable service towards the general public.

Isn’t this the lesson we nurses begin to grasp over time with our patients? With experience, we come to recognize we can’t fix everything for our patients, but as we are pressed to define or redefine ‘best outcomes,’ we then take steps in those directions – often still grieving, often still constantly reorienting.

There is insight about the ways we grieve ideal outcomes for and with our patients, but still work towards ‘best outcomes’ in light of the reality of painful diagnoses, that can translate over into our perspective on our profession at this precarious point in history. This insight may help those of us who stay in nursing maintain some real hope for best outcomes for this profession (and/or for our individual workplaces), even as we deeply grieve the loss of the ideal.

This is painful, and hard, and also in some ways nudges us towards new definitions of what hope looks like in the midst of these realities.

I think again about the reasons I still stay in nursing –

1.) To provide meaningful, helpful care to my patients and families; 2.) To work in a supportive environment that is life-giving and not demoralizing; 3.) To earn decent wages that support my family and allow us to pursue things and support others in ways that are meaningful to us as a family; 4.) To serve the general public with my expertise, gifting and skill set.

I’m grieving a lot of gaps and loss in all four of these, as of late. We’ve all lost a lot of our ideals, and in this kind of work, that hurts.

And even still, I find myself staying, still curious about where new hope and new pursuits in the redefining of ‘best outcomes’ can show up in all four of these reasons to stay.

2 thoughts on “Can Grieving Loss of Idealism in Nursing Give Room for New Hope?

  1. Thank you for these thoughts. They are articulated very well, what so many nurses are feeling. I like how you have reoriented your deflation in idealism by reminding yourself of your reasons for being a nurse. I have just entered a new job working in the ER from working a medicine floor. I see the burnout in the ER staff and feel the apathy and frustration in the voices of the staff as they look after patients and comment, rant and judge the actions of the public and the government. It is a hard place to be! I also feel this loss of idealism. I have been nursing for 4 years now. My first year was the hardest as I transitioned from idealism to the reality of a busy medicine floor. These last two years I have felt the idealism sap out of me even more as I live and work through the pandemic. I also should take time to reorient and remind myself the reasonrs why I joined this profession – it seems a productive way to work through this grief and loss.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This post deeply resonated. As a veteran nurse, I am worried about our caring/healing profession, so under strain from the stresses and burdens you so aptly described. Thank you for writing from the heart of nursing, for being a reminder of our why. Together we stand stronger… together we will rise.

    Liked by 1 person

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