Grief as a Teacher

During my interview with Claire and Chris Sandys yesterday for The Silent Why Podcast about my experiences with loss and grief from the vantage point of a PICU nurse, they asked so many wonderfully insightful questions. Their questions were in fact so insightful and open-ended, I actually struggled more than I expected to answer them succinctly because there was so much to say in response. I can’t wait for the episode to air, and I’ll be sure to share the link when it’s available! In the meantime, I’ll take some questions from our discussion that I wanted to elaborate on, and do that here.

I realized anew how very deep and wide our experiences as healthcare providers run. We see so many unique stories over time, and each patient story impacts us both in similar as well as very specific ways.

Grief and hope manifest so uniquely for each patient and family that I encounter, it is extremely difficult to speak in broad strokes about what grief and hope look like in the PICU.

Claire asked me to elaborate on previous references I’ve made in other talks to grief as a teacher. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this question over the past 24 hours.

I’ve certainly had my own wranglings with grief in my personal life. But here I will share from the specific vantage point of a PICU nurse, coming up close with the primary grief of my patients and their families, and then wrestling with my professional grief as both an intimate observer and sometimes participant with these patients and their family members as I’ve gotten to know them over time.

How has grief been a teacher for me as a PICU nurse?

  1. Grief asks challenging and important questions, as teachers do.

I watch my patients’ family members – and sometimes my older pediatric patients themselves, when they know they are in their last days and still coherent – start to process these questions. As I watch them wrestle deeply, I can’t help but think about my own close relationships and my life.

  • What were the most meaningful attributes about the person / experience I’m grieving?
  • What was the gift (now felt in the form of loss) that this person brought to my life?
  • Did the person know, experientially, that I loved them? Did I love them well overall?
  • Where did I fall short in the ways I related / now relate to people, that I regret and want to change?
  • What do I believe about God and the human soul, in light of our startling, humbling mortality and vulnerability?

2. Grief illuminates core life lessons that I was perhaps remiss to learn.

  • I see both my misplaced priorities (often in the form of regret which I hope will lead to change), as well as the beauty of my well-placed priorities, which I am now heartened to continue guarding.
  • I see renewed value in my current relationships in light of the losses I’ve witnessed. For every moment of selfishness I feel towards my own children and their demands on my life, I feel almost immediate pangs of sad memories from parents I’ve walked with in our unit, who would give everything for those mundane days with their kids to be restored. It is the grief of my patients and their families that so often corrects me and my less than stellar attitudes towards the people I take for granted in my life.
  • I see the spotlight cast on our sometimes flippant assumptions about our days on earth and our perceived invincibility. I see the importance of thinking through the choices we make with our time, energy and character because of what we believe about our mortality, God, and about eternity.

I would love to hear in the comments how grief has been a teacher for you, a valuable voice in the room.

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