Over the last decade (plus) of working as a geriatric nurse I have, on occasion, become close to not only the patients I care for but also their families. In any long-term care and skilled nursing facility you get to know family members, especially the ones that visit often. You build a professional relationship with them that can so easily become personal as you share some of the most emotionally challenging times of their lives as they watch their mother, father, beloved aunt or uncle, or that special grandparent go through the stages of chronic illness and eventually move on. The majority of the time I work exceptionally hard to keep that relationship professional. I do this not because I do not care, I do… deeply. I create that boundary to protect my emotional well-being. This serves a double purpose of being able to more easily compartmentalize my emotions so that I can comfort a grieving family member while continuing to provide quality care to my other patients.
This weekend we had a death. It wasn’t unexpected, but it was a death that hit harder than others have for multiple reasons. The patient was special. You know how some people just light up a room? This patient was able to do that even when battling severe pain from the cancer that would eventually take away life. There was a sparkle in this patient’s eye that nothing could extinguish. This patient’s smile was catching and made your heart lighter and was a gift that was shared with everyone. This patient’s family loved him deeply.
I went in to work on Friday knowing I had to work a double shift and that I was going to be working on the long-term care unit rather than the skilled unit I typically work on. I was a little excited to go into work because I was going to be able to spend some extra time with residents that I no longer get to see as much since switching to the skilled floor a month ago. I was feeling refreshed coming in after 3 days off. My nurse-partner and I work so well as a team, and Friday started our weekend together. The family of the dying patient was in sitting with him, socializing with each other, doing everything they could to lift each other’s spirits. They had been in non-stop for 4 days at that point since the patient had taken a turn for the worst Monday night holding vigils and celebrating a life lived well and full of love. Immediately after they all went home for the night the patient took his last breath and went to sleep. I made what is always the hardest phone call in the world to make to his family. They came back to say goodbye one more time and upon entering the building thanked me. The words they said were beautiful and appreciated, but I have some of mine own to say back to them.
Thank you for showing me that there are still families that will drop everything to be with a loved one in their time of need.
Thank you for openly sharing your love with each other.
Thank you for including not only the family of blood, but also this patient’s family of choice.
Thank you for dropping any problems you may have with one another and supporting one another through this time.
Thank you for bringing laughter in what can be a dark time.
Thank you for sharing your stories with myself and all of the other staff.
Thank you for supporting this patient’s end of life choices, giving him the support he wanted and needed, and allowing us to provide him with as much comfort as possible.
Thank you for openly appreciating not only my work, but also the work of every single staff member in the facility. You don’t know how very rare that is.
Thank you for cherishing and learning from your elders.
I see a lot of death because of the age group I choose to work with. I wish I could say that I see the open love in every family that I saw in this one, but sadly that just isn’t true. So I will leave everyone with this thought. Family is the most important thing you can create in this world. It does not matter if the “family” you create is related to you by blood or if they are a family of choice… if you are lucky you will have both.
Cherish them. Love them. Support them in their times of need. It will pay you back ten fold.