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How clinicals helped me cope with my grief

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When I became a nursing student in my 40s, I never thought that school would help me cope with a personal tragedy. Here’s the story of how clinicals helped me grieve, and how that grief made me a better nurse.

Becoming a nurse after the age of 40 (and as a mother of two teenagers!) can be a decision that makes people think you are either going through a midlife crisis or need serious psychiatric help!

My first college experience began when I turned 41, after I contacted the local community college and inquired about attending classes. The advisor was a great encourager and I began the pursuit of my future career: nursing. The worst part of nursing school was being wait-listed, but I began by taking prerequisites during the spring and summer semesters.

Finally, the notice came that I could begin nursing school in the fall. I was now 42 and feeling so old! I sat in my first lab clinical with other nursing students who were young enough to be my children. I felt overwhelmed—as did everyone else in the room.

I survived the first six weeks of clinical, learning the basics of bed-making, bed baths, safe patient transfers, taking blood pressures and temperatures, and role playing in the SIMS laboratory. Nursing midterms came and skills testing began; thankfully I passed, and in two weeks would begin my first hospital clinical assignment on an orthopedics unit.

Still reveling from my first passing grades in nursing school, I looked forward to Columbus Day weekend, when my son would have an extra day off from high school. Late Sunday night, my son asked permission to go to a friend’s house. He decided to walk the few blocks, which happened to be on the opposite side of the train tracks near our home. Just before reaching the train tracks, another friend joined him. A quick decision to walk across the tracks and not the pedestrian bridge above them turned tragic for my son.

The following week was spent arranging my son’s funeral and preparing for my first nursing clinical. Getting through those days was difficult and I barely remember them. But I never considered not attending clinical—I had to continue.

Attending my first clinical orientation was hard. I think I surprised my clinical instructor when I walked into the hospital lobby. I drew strength from my faith in God and in the knowledge that my son was in a better place. The next weeks flew by as I learned to grieve and to care for my first patients. I remember how difficult it was caring for some of them. As moments turned to days and then months, I began to realize that my experience with death could have a positive influence on how I care for my patients. I learned what the word empathy really means.

Having empathy is vital when dealing with sickness and death. In this era of computer technology, we often are removed from each other’s feelings and sometimes from our own. Nurses are worried about the monitors, bells and hourly rounding, but we lose connection with the patient or patient’s family members who are in the room.

My first clinical rotation was more than a learning experience; it was a time to heal and move through the many stages of grief while connecting with my new career and my patients. Many times when I was feeling low, a patient would share a story that would touch my heart and fill me with encouragement. I just had to take the time and listen.

Nursing has become more than a career—it has become my life. While I never would want anyone to go through the death of a child, I learned that by reaching out and caring for my first patients in clinical, I slowly was able to mend my broken heart.

What I have learned from the death of my son is that it is imperative to connect with each patient. What you give your patient comes back in full. Maybe not today, but it will in the future. Each patient has a gift to offer—if we don’t have empathy or a connection with our patients, we will never have the opportunity to receive that gift.

Candace Finch, BSN, RN, works as an orthopedics nurse at Upstate University Hospital at Community General in Syracuse, N.Y.

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