Lessons from the Bedside: Life After [a Patient's] Death

Recently I took care of a patient who died.

The patient went quickly and without pain, but for some reason the death shook me more than usual. The next day, I found out a different patient had decided to go hospice. At home in my bed, I cried as I thought about how I'd gotten to know these dear people, and how their lives had or were coming to an end. Not in a painful or sudden or traumatic way, but coming to an end nonetheless.

Admittedly, lately I've been working extra shifts at the hospital and have been slightly overwhelmed by nursing in general, and maybe that's why these deaths seemed to affect me more than usual. Saddened by the loss of life, I sat in my bed begging my body to fall asleep while tears slid down my face. Sickness, sickness, death, sickness. Though I love my patients dearly, I was worn out.

  Stock photo from Adobe

Stock photo from Adobe

All I wanted was to help people succeed. It's what gives me the most fulfillment and satisfaction in life. In high school, I played competitive soccer. I only scored once the entire time I played, and the one time was sort of a fluke! I didn't care, though. My favorite position was center mid-field, where I could receive the ball from our defense, take it up field, and set up a scoring opportunity for our forwards. I may have scored only one goal myself, but I couldn't keep track of my assists. When I could create space on the field and send the perfect pass—just the right position, speed, and timing—for a goal, I was just as thrilled as if I had scored myself. Their success was my success. Nothing brought me more joy.

These setups for success were the kind of work I wanted to do every day, and working in a hospital, staring sickness and death in the eye every day, felt like just the opposite.

These thoughts swirled in my brain the next day as I drove around town after dropping by the hospital to say goodbye to our now-hospice patient. I cried in the car, and I told God I was sad, and I questioned what role I had as a nurse in helping others succeed.

In the car at a stoplight, tears slipping down my face, I wondered. I wondered if I had a limited view of success. I wondered if to the patient and to God, success didn't mean staying on this earth. I wondered if it meant them crossing over into eternity and feeling His embrace. I wondered if being one of the last faces someone sees, one of the last hands they hold, one of the last voices to say a prayer for them on this earth—I wondered if this was helping them succeed in moving to the next place they were meant to be, the place we were really all made to be: the presence of the Most High God.

This realization crushed me. I wept like a baby at that stoplight, and I can't help but cry a little now as I remember that sweet moment. We can only see part of the soccer field, and perhaps sitting with someone at the end of life is akin to assisting them with the most epic goal of their existence, the moment they see God face to face.

To be frank, though this perspective helps me process the experiences of this week, it doesn't make death any easier. It doesn't mean I won't cry the next time I have a patient who dies or who make the difficult decision to go hospice. It's easy for others to remind me it's special and important work to care for people in their last months, days, and moments, just like it's easy for others to tell me my work as a bedside nurse is honorable and impactful. Speaking or hearing these words is not the same as living out the moments at the bedside. People like to say nursing is a calling, but even if it is a calling for some, it's still a job. There is still the wear and tear of cleanups, medications, assessments, the moment-by-moment deepening of relationship between nurse and patient in every interaction, and the moment-by-moment decisions and realizations a patient is declining. The sweetness of helping someone succeed does not remove the deep sorrow of death.

Yet, I am thankful there is sweetness and not only sorrow.

Today, I'll keep hoping. Hoping for what's to come, for the day we'll all be on the other side of death, when there will be no more sorrow, only the sweetness of the presence of Jesus. Yet until then, I'll keep praying, and I'll keep crying. And I'll keep doing my best to be a part of the setup for success.

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