Monday, June 3, 2013

Grief Week

It's Grief Week in our institution. I was able to attend a small conference meeting by an author of several (ok, like 50) books on the topic of grief and loss. Most interestingly (to me) was the discussion of how North Americans/Westerners grieve as compared to the majority of other cultures. We are quiet and stoic, often stifling our tears and cries until we are completely alone. When family members from other cultures experience a loss, they may do so loudly, keening and wailing. This makes "Western" patients and family members in nearby rooms uncomfortable. It reminds them of their own mortality, and how close they are to experiencing their own loss. 

I feel we should be allowing the grievers to grieve in their own way, loudly or quietly. Everyone else just needs to accept that death is, in fact, a part of life. It's more than a part of life in our unit, it's just a part of our day. In recent times, Americans (I'll just speak for my own people since I don't want to speak for what I'm not) have not had to be around death with the frequency that they experienced just a century before. We go to the hospital not to die, but to get better. We think everything can be "fixed" with modern medicine and technology. We can't accept letting go. We aren't used to death happening around or near us, let alone to us. The one exception being, perhaps, ICU staff. We are used to it, at least in some senses. We develop techniques and strategies to cope, grieve, and mourn for the losses of our patients. 

As for me, after a patient passes I often turn on a song called "Calling All Angels" or a few other death related songs on the drive home. Sometimes I shed a few more tears for the person, but mostly I allow myself to solemnly honor their existence and their passing. 

We are a culture in denial. Our family members look at us like we're monsters when we suggest withdrawing. We look at the family members like they are monsters because they continue to allow the patient to suffer needlessly. In many ways, the culture of the ICU staff completely clashes with the culture of the ICU patients and families. We see death as a natural end to a disease progression, a profoundly sad and heartbreaking experience, but a natural and necessary one. Family members translate this into us wanting to "give up" on their loved one, or accuse us of having an apathetic attitude toward them. 

We are not apathetic when it comes to death and dying. We are advocates for a peaceful letting go, and a natural end of life, when all experts are in agreement that further treatment is not only futile, but cruel. 

So, it's grief week, and there is a panel of patients and family members sharing their experiences with grief and loss in our hospital. I wish I could go. I wish I could be on that panel. My own experience was... well, it was terrible. I was disappointed in the care I received. I understand that it's a sad and uncomfortable position to be in, as a caregiver, to guide someone through the loss of their own child. I think ICU nurses have a lot to teach other caregivers about their role in situations that present death. 

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