My first experience with death as a nurse was my first day of clinicals as a nursing student. I walked in, bright and early, to greet my patient – faking confidence that I knew what I was doing – and found a lifeless body. The nurse to whom I was assigned was already in the room waiting for me. We had not covered death and dying, so I had no clue what to do. I was scared.
At the end of my nursing program, we had a practicum experience. I asked to be placed in a hospice or palliative setting. I wanted to learn more. From the first day, I knew that I was meant to work in hospice. After graduation, it took me about a year before I secured a full-time position as a hospice nurse.
When you tell people you work as a hospice nurse, you get one of two reactions: “Oh my goodness! I could never do that!” or “My (relative, friend, loved one) was on hospice. Let me tell you about it…” Then they ask you why you would choose to work with people who are dying. Why would you do something so sad?
Those are the most natural questions to answer for me. I love hospice philosophy. Simply put, hospice is doing what we can to let people live the best quality of life for however long that may be. Many people think it is a place. While there are some in-patient facilities, those are used for uncontrolled symptom management. Hospice allows people to stay where they want to – to pass where they want to. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than spending my final days in a hospital.
That second question: Why do something so sad? We have patients who are with us for months. We get to know their stories— who they truly are, who they were. We know their families. Yes, we cry when they die. We are sad for the loved ones our patients leave behind. Our jobs are to make sure the patients are comfortable. We work with physicians, nurse practitioners, social workers, chaplains and nursing assistants to make sure every need they have is met. People often look at me funny when I comment that someone had a good death. If a patient is comfortable and at peace, I consider this a good death. This makes me happy. It means I have done what I have told the patient I would.
I am no longer scared of being around death. I understand the physiological process quite well. I will not begin to say I appreciate the spiritual process, but I know there is one. Sitting vigil with someone who is actively dying is something we often do in hospice. One of my former coworkers phrased it perfectly when he said, “Being with someone when they pass will make you believe in God, if you didn’t already.”
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