Even as an adolescent, I recognized birth as a sacred moment. Perhaps this is why I just knew that I would find my niche, as many students believe, in women’s health. This notion, it turns out, was severely misled, but that is a whole other story for another time.
There is another sacred moment in life, one that isn’t as readily talked about. I’ve never encountered an aspiring nurse who claims end of life care as their specialty of choice. I think there are many reasons for this. Firstly, it doesn’t sound like very cheerful business. Secondly, as far as nursing specialties, it doesn’t sound very glorious. Lastly, we often label our work as a “healing profession” and helping people out the back door of this life doesn’t quite line up with that perception. The fact is, healing is not always the appropriate goal. Please don’t think me heartless or apathetic to the pain of losing loved ones. I know all too well the agony of grieving. The beautiful thing about end of life care is that you are not just treating a patient, you are treating the family and you are treating their loved ones. You provide comfort and dignity. You listen as they reminisce. You laugh with them, you pray with them. It is an extremely intimate process. My hospice rotation yielded some of the most rewarding and spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. I worked some home health, I worked some inpatient. The more I saw, the more I wanted to learn. It was from a dying patient’s care that I adopted my first personal unbreakable law of nursing. My favorite instructor said it as she pulled our whole group into the room. “NO ONE DIES ALONE.” The patient had no relatives. Just us, a group of strangers gathered around their bed. We held their hand, we spoke to them, we wiped their perspiring brow and wetted their drying lips. They say that, as the body shuts down, hearing is the one of the last functions to go. I like to think that is true, and I encourage you to speak, or even to sing to anyone who is “unresponsive.” Do whatever it takes to assure them that they are not alone.
I have never specifically worked in end of life care professionally, but I have, on occasion provided hospice care on my med/surg unit. I have let many things slip and I’ve probably “wasted” time in rooms of the dying that could have been spent tending to other patients. I don’t regret a second of it. We are born once and we die once. Every nurse has a code. “NO ONE DIES ALONE.”
If I had to pinpoint a moment when my official adult life started, I’d say it was a little more than seven years ago. In August 2008, I moved to a town where I, for the first time ever, didn’t share a zip code with any relative or friend.
Since then, I’ve started and completed a college degree. I’ve worked several jobs. I’ve built relationships with some awesome people whom I love dearly. I’ve started a career. I’ve married a man with a heart of gold and we have a happy baby boy.
From a blank slate, I’ve made a very successful life in this place. I still have my loving family, but life has scattered us in such a way that I do not see them routinely. I’m sure that there are countless others my age who share a similar story.
Now, I’ll rewind a bit further. As ambitious a teenager as I was, I was never planning to start my “grown-up adventure” solo. My very dear friend that had been my co-pilot through years of awkward adolescence and embarassing shenanigans had been accepted to the same university as me. It was the perfect plan. The girl who laced most every memory from elementary school on, would be by my side for our next big adventure. Except, I lost Rosie that spring in a car accident.
Fast forward to present. I still get sad. Sad in ways I had never anticipated. Sad for reasons that I would have never been able to wrap my head around when the wounds were fresh and I was trying to build some semblance of a routine with what felt like my half-self. Nearly a decade later, I no longer feel the gaping void in my day. I don’t reach for the phone to call her, or put my face in clothes she left at my place, hoping for a shadow of her scent. But I do get sad. I get sad that I can’t reminisce with my new friends and family about her. That when I bring up her name, I feel crazy, speaking about an imaginary friend that they have never seen. I rarely go places where we spent time, or see people that we saw, and as a result, I lose her more each year. Things I was certain I’d never forget are getting fuzzy. Some days, she doesn’t even cross my mind. I grieve the loss of details, of inside jokes, of a look, or a sound. I grieve the loss of the grieving. This is a journey that I’m still traveling. And, as life moves forward, I’ll experience more loss. Time heals broken hearts, but the price is a clouded memory and a guilty concience. I have comfort in knowing that we shared a lot of love and a hundred years can never erase that.