Bereaved families can often feel alone in their grief – feeling like the world keeps turning while their world has stopped. It may feel like the care team for your loved one goes right back to business as usual after a loss, but as this open letter to bereaved families from a bedside nurse illustrates, they don’t.
To the bereaved, the grieved, to those who’ve lost their worlds,
I have to be honest. I don’t really know where or how to start this letter to you. Words feel painfully inadequate to express my pain, my sorrow, and how deeply my heart breaks for you, as you say goodbye and, in the weeks, months, and even years to come.
I am a nurse. For me, being a nurse is not just my job, my profession – it is a part of me that is bone-deep, a piece of who I am. I have spent years caring for patients across all walks of life; from newborn babies to those who are young at heart. In that time, I have seen some who “beat the odds” seemingly stacked against them in their fight; I’ve seen others who succumbed despite having “the odds in their favor.” I’ve witnessed incredible triumphs and I’ve witnessed heartbreak. Part of being a nurse, both in soul and by profession, is helping families to say goodbye and aiding their loved ones in passing with dignity and without pain. We know what an immense privilege this is and the incredibly important responsibility we hold.
For some of you, I have cared for your loved one (and of course your family) for weeks, months, sometimes years; for others, it may have only been a few days. No matter how long I have had the honor of being your nurse, or how many years I’ve been in the profession, your loss is something unique I carry with me every day, holding close to my heart, and imprinted forever into my memory.
I have heard, and deeply felt, the guttural, heart-wrenching screams and sobs of a mother who’s just held her child as they took their last breath. I have seen the desperate, searching look in a father’s eyes as he wishes, with every fiber of his being, he could fix things, make everything okay again. I have watched, heartbroken, as a spouse’s eyes flood and spill over as their loved one passes, and the hand holding theirs becomes slack and limp. Every single one of these scenes is etched, forever in my mind, even years later. Every. Single. One. I can tell you the names and stories of every single person I’ve cared for and lost in my time as a nurse. Young and old. Every. Single. Person. Because I remember them, and you, like it was yesterday. I carry them with me in my daily work, to honor them, to honor your loss, in hopes I can do more, do better for the next family.
Please know: I grieve too.
When it’s time, I help you make hand and footprints, cut a lock of hair, and help you to hold them close one last time. Some of you say you don’t want to, but I know, deep down and from too much experience, you’ll regret it if you don’t. Sometimes, in those cases, I do these things after you’ve left, so one day you’ll have these mementos to cherish and hold dear. These small actions feel like not enough, feel inadequate to honor a life, but I know they will help you remember them and process your grief in the years ahead. In some small way, it helps me honor their memory and your loss and provides some small solace in an otherwise tragic situation.
As you say your final goodbyes, I leave the room to give you time and space, in hopes you can find peace and love in a moment of such great loss. I lock myself in the supply closet or bathroom and cry for you, for them. I cannot cry for long, because the patient in room three is due for their antibiotics and the surgeon is calling for an update on the patient in room six. I splash cold water on my face, blot my eyes, and try to collect myself to go back to work.
As the time passes, I walk past your room knowing you’re saying your goodbyes, trying to reconcile the thought that you will be leaving without them, but with a new hole in your heart, your soul, where they used to be. When you’re ready to leave, I walk with you out of the hospital. Your arms empty and your hearts shattered. Leaving more than just a little piece of yourself behind in that hospital room. I watch you drive away, with tears in my eyes and my heart in my throat, wishing more than anything I could be home and hugging my loved ones, but instead, going back to work to finish my shift. Something you may not know: when I’ve seen you drive away, I walk slowly back into your hospital room and I hold your loved one’s hand and I cry. I cry for the hole they leave behind, for the moments that will never be, for the moments that are now only memories.
I close you and your loved one, gone too soon, into a special place in my heart and in my mind – not far below the surface – because I can’t mourn for you, and for them, right now. My grief has to wait. It surfaces from time to time, even years later, sometimes expected, sometimes not. But whenever and however it appears, I know I’m not alone. Your entire care team feels it and grieves your loved one. Many of us don’t talk about it, even amongst each other. We keep you locked in that special compartment – grieving for you in private – in the car on the drive home, while unloading the dishwasher, or doing the laundry. We keep you there because our grief is not easy to share. I keep you there so I can better help the next family when it’s time. We keep you there because it reminds us what an extraordinary honor it is to care for you and your loved ones, to help them pass, and to support you as you begin your journey of grief and a life without them. My wish for you is that you know you’re not alone in missing your loved one, in grieving their loss, even when it feels like you are the only one who remembers. I hope that brings you peace and some comfort when you need it. We remember them. We honor them. We say their names. We never, ever forget.
Your bedside nurse