How to enjoy life in the presence of death

Carole Arbuckle, NM Support Counsellor
A few years ago, I attended a wedding with some nursing colleagues. Although we only knew the groom, we were soon having a wonderful time dancing, singing and sharing funny stories. Suddenly, the groom’s father appeared beaming, saying; “You must be the palliative care nurses!” When I asked how he knew he simply said, “You seem to know how to enjoy life; it’s why I’m so pleased my son became a nurse…”

photo of people dancing by mitchorr

Professional Witnesses to trauma

Nurses and midwives are professional witnesses to the worst moments in people’s lives. Many of us learn to be philosophical: we accept life can be tragically short. As a result, we strive to live life fully.

However, grief and loss can be unpredictable and complex. A philosophical approach is not always enough. We can experience significant and deep trauma as a result of grief and loss. We can carry personal grief into our professional lives. We can feel high levels of anxiety and inadequacy about what to say to clients who are wrestling with troubling and profound feelings about grief and loss.

Dealing with the struggle

Many of us struggle with this experience before we realise how to look at these issues. Self-care can be vital to manage and cope with grief and loss. Unfortunately, some of us might see self-care as just another thing we need to do at the end of a busy day.

The term self-care doesn’t suit everyone, so here’s a useful analogy: think of it as if you were going to rescue someone in a lake. You wouldn’t jump in if you couldn’t swim. You’d need to find resources, seek out appropriate assistance, and develop sound strategies and tools to support you. Otherwise, you’ll both drown.

Defining self-care

There are many definitions of self-care but here is my favourite:

True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake; it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from
Brianna Wiest

Like the clients I observed trying to adapt or accept the illness they were facing, I learned that the only way I could do the work I loved was to truly adapt and accept that self-care was vital and understand how to make positive choices to maintain it. Initially, it wasn’t easy. At the time, I believed nurses should push through, and we should be able to cope quietly, invisibly — without help.

I was wrong. Now, I choose to accept I am not immune to the impact of grief and loss in my professional and personal life. I choose to give myself permission to talk to someone I trust when I feel affected by grief and loss. I accept I am potentially susceptible to burnout or compassion fatigue. In fact, I now understand this is common, especially if you didn’t know the signs and your personal triggers. I chose to learn what those were.

Finding the right tools

Over time, I also learned that I could develop cognitive and emotional tools and knowledge that gave me permission to say: I do not have special powers. It’s OK to be a ‘work in progress’ but still strive to be a valuable support to clients. I choose to accept vulnerability as an important part of being deeply human for ourselves and our clients. This sensitive, intricate, fragile and vital part of us serves as an important way to grow and make our lives more satisfying, richer, fuller and meaningful.

It doesn’t happen overnight

It’s important to note: I didn’t wake up one day with these realisations. My experience is a lifelong approach, a collective ongoing process — seeking out education on grief and loss, learning to recognise burnout and compassion fatigue, building informal networks with trusted peers who are prepared to be honest, open and vulnerable.

Counselling was incredibly helpful to unpack the unconscious processes and motivations that underpinned my professional life, both positively and negatively. Interestingly, psychologists and psychiatrists use this method for psychological support and safety, yet nurses and midwives, who are intimately involved with loss and grief at every part of our client’s lives from birth to death, largely do not. Our service can help with this call for a debrief anytime on 1800 667 877.

Strong social connections are paramount. It is crucial to be like the palliative care nurse friends I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, striving to live life fully with people who you enjoy and who enjoy you. Making conscious choices about coping with loss and grief sustain you to do the work we do safely and rewardingly — in short, make choices that don’t make you feel like you’ve built a life you regularly need to escape from.