On Humility and Reading the Room

Yesterday I was talking with another nurse about a wonderfully vivacious coworker who used to work night shift in our unit years ago. She had a way about her where she could create easy conversation with any patient and family member, shine a bright smile and lighten the mood of just about any room. We talked about how it could sometimes be a tough act to follow, given that yesterday’s colleague and I both tend to be more serious personalities. I’ve never been and never will be the life of the party. Unless I just happen to click with a particular patient and family in just the right way, I typically will never be the “fun” nurse. I’d say this generally holds true for my interaction with individuals and groups in my life overall. I run quiet, mild-mannered and serious, with a subtle mischievous and sarcastic streak that needs just the right context to emerge.

While I’ve grown much more comfortable in my own skin as I’ve gotten older, I do sometimes envy those rare gifted few who enter a room with such bright and easy energy that regardless of what’s going on, the people in the room can’t help but light up.

One of my most vivid regrets from my nursing career to this day was when I was called to the room of a teenage male who had suffered a devastating spinal cord injury, to help change the C-collar that provided critical stabilization to his neck while keeping the rest of his body in perfect alignment. I had been this patient’s nurse just a few days prior, when he had learned from the neurosurgeon that he would never walk or use his hands or feet again, his injury was that catastrophic. It had been an intensely heavy day for him and his family, and I think I walked with them very tenderly and appropriately.

On this new day when I was called over to help, I really hoped his spirits were ever so slightly better as he’d had a few days to let his prognosis sink in. But I didn’t ask his bedside nurse about that before I entered the room. I also really wanted to be more than the serious nurse. I wanted to be that nurse who could walk in and brighten up his room a little bit with my presence.

So I walked in with just a little too much energy, just a little too much pep in my voice. “Hi!! How are you?! Remember me? I took care of you the other day!”

His eyes did not light up as I hoped. They moved in my direction with a confusion that had nothing to do with who I was, but why I was coming at him with such forced cheer. I saw his eyebrow furrow ever so slightly.

“Hi… I’m…ok.”

Immediately I knew that I had failed to enter the room with the kind of patience and humility that every suffering person deserves to be approached with. I had made my initial presence in that room too much about myself and who I hoped and tried too hard to be in that moment. By doing so, I broke the connection I had built with this patient a few days prior, and was no longer someone who placed his sense of being-seen over my own desire to be seen.


Fast forward to present day circumstances when I am now the one navigating awkward conversations with people struggling to know how to support me as the person working through a serious illness. I’ve been pretty open both in person and on social media about my diagnosis and journey. But trying to navigate conversations in a “normal” world, and not the unique context of the hospital where the blaring focus is on all the blaring illnesses, is quite the learning curve as someone who 1) doesn’t do superficiality well; 2) finds it important for us as a society to learn how to talk openly about uncomfortable things; 3) recognizes that not everyone is skilled in delicate conversations; 4) wants to show grace and also quite frankly needs to not be overly burdened by people who really don’t approach these conversations with much sensitivity or extra thought.

I had posted some health updates and reflections on Facebook, and most friends have been wonderfully supportive and empathetic, but some people – typically acquaintances who really don’t know me very well – come at me with careless and insensitive comments or inquiries that leave me scratching my head, sometimes offended, often just disappointed. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced this kind of disappointment much at all from my in-person community, but still, peoples’ responses to my situation are widely varied.

I don’t expect people to read my mind in any given moment or get it all perfect. I honestly don’t mind people asking me questions. Ultimately I’ll choose what I say, assume best intentions unless it’s grossly apparent otherwise, and can take care of myself in managing conversations. But my hope is that we as a people in general take the time and thought to consider how we can love the suffering and grieving better.

The first step in that, as I had to learn by my own personal failure with my patient, is taking a moment and remembering that our care towards suffering people has to do first and foremost with seeing them well. If that means gently hanging back, observing carefully and listening quietly before we assess whether “high energy, strong positivity me” is the appropriate persona to offer, then this is probably the wiser approach rather than presuming and coming at people too hard and fast. Our comfort and care of others isn’t about us being seen as “so good at supporting” or “so vivacious for all situations.” It’s about seeing the suffering person well and then gently earning enough trust and connection to meet that person where they actually are. If we judge carefully and rightly they are in a high-spirited place, then we can easily ramp up our energy to meet them there. But forced cheer for ourselves and for them rarely does any good, and often can do harm. The same holds true for impatient ignorance.

Just because navigating delicate situations and conversations is really hard and awkward, doesn’t mean it’s a skill we can’t develop. There are so many wonderful resources like those from Kate Bowler, Grief is a Sneaky Bitch, The Silent Why, Speaking Grief, and Megan Devine, that give us so many poignant stories to learn from and model for us healthier conversations about suffering.

I’m not perfect in this skill either but I want to do better. We all need soft places to land these days and there are ways we can grow in our ability to provide that to one another.

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