This is Not a Strength

empathy necessary from health care providers
At what point did it become a “strength” for one human being to possess the ability demonstrate empathy for another?
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I have questions.

So many. And I’m not sure anyone has answers for me.

At what point did it become a “strength” for one human being to possess the ability demonstrate empathy for another? When did caring for others become unique? Why is it so startling that a person could genuinely give a damn about what someone else is experiencing, regardless of any preexisting relationship or even more so in the absolute absence of a preexisting relationship?

I recently had a pretty awful day at work. It ended with tears, broken hearts, and some nightmares that followed me home after fifteen hours spent in the same room for the entirety of that day. Subsequently, I was asked to participate in a debriefing; an exercise in which nurses and other providers are given a space to express the impact of such an experience, in a room with people who understand what it’s like because they went through it, too, or they have experienced something like it at some point in their career.

One topic covered during the debriefing is coping. I keep balance by way of perspective. I’ve learned to cope with the hard days that are part of being a PICU nurse. Profound heartbreak balanced by profound gratitude for the joys of life. Perspective, gratitude, faith. Those are my keys. I also give myself permission to feel the pain of the loss with my patients’ families. There is no reason why a family should be grieving the loss of a child while a stoic faced nurse looks on and checks the time. If something devastating happens in front of us, we should be devastated. Feeling it in the moment helps me not to carry it with me into my home and on to my next shifts.

On the days we don’t win, I also have to have the peace of knowing that we as a team, and I as an individual nurse, have done everything that is within our power and ability to do to try and save a life. With that, I can survive the bad days, still be a good nurse for the next patient that needs our help, and still enjoy the blessings I have outside of work without the losses becoming overwhelming or intrusive into my day to day life.

When I explained this during the debriefing, it was called a “strength.” Particularly the fact that I was willing to acknowledge the sadness I felt in the moment and to cry in the room and when I got home that night, as opposed to forcing myself not to feel it at all or to hide my emotions lest anyone see them and think it unprofessional or unbecoming of an RN. I found myself disagreeing out loud before I could think to stop myself.

Why is it a strength to feel what any human would feel? When did we decide that nurses and doctors weren’t supposed to care enough to cry? How did we come to that conclusion?

Listen. I will not call this a strength, and no one will change my mind. This is being human, and we should all be able to do that.

This is not me being self-depreciating. I know my strengths, and I won’t feign modesty when they’re acknowledged. I’m good at what I’m good at, and I need to work on what I need to work on. There’s no point in pretending otherwise. Similarly, I feel what I feel, and I don’t think there’s any point in any of us hiding that. If we are bearing witness to a shift-your-world-on-its-axis level loss, we should care, and it should show. Our patients and families deserve nurses that care about that and they deserve to see that we care about that! They deserve to know that they are not facing it alone. The loss is theirs, yes, but if we saw a stranger on the sidewalk suddenly collapse into tears, no decent human being would pretend it wasn’t happening for the sake of keeping a straight face. We’d hold them up, maybe even cry with them if the situation warranted a few of our own tears. Heaven knows I do, and I’m not ashamed of that. From my perspective, it’s pragmatic. See something sad, respond accordingly. See something happy, respond accordingly. Anything else goes against human nature, doesn't it?

It astounds me that that is somehow the exception in these scenarios instead of the rule. Showing our feelings is not a sign of weakness, and not showing them is not a sign of strength. It is just evidence of a culture that has so mistakenly thought so, and that I truly hope I will see shift during my career.

Truth be told I’m seeing that change more and more already. There are more and more nurses and providers who are realizing it’s okay to see a nurse cry. In fact, it’s reassuring. It is tangible evidence that everyone involved cared about the outcome, and families can go home being sure that they’re sure that everyone in that room caring for the person they loved who didn’t come back home did everything they could possibly have done to save them. They cared enough to do it all, and they see it because they see us feeling the pain of the loss, too.

They deserve that. And we deserve to be able to be human beings while we’re doing these jobs that on some days can try to steal the humanity right out from under us. We cannot survive them if we continuously bottle these experiences up and ignore the hard days. We are humans dealing with human lives. The complications inherent to that can only stay buried for but so long before somehow, they find their way out. When that means being devastated with a family and crying with them, then that’s what we should be able to do. And it shouldn’t be seen as so ‘unique.’ Being a compassionate, decent human being who cares about what’s happening to another person should not be unique. It should be the standard.

Please don’t tell me it’s a strength. It’s human. Let nurses be human. Let it be normal to have a broken heart when we should. Let’s not make compassion and decency unique. Let’s just make them what we do.


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