The Journey of Death

by cav5 | 11,048 Views | 16 Comments

This article talks about how I chose nursing due to a blessing in my life but found out what true nursing is following a loss. It also describes the changes in myself as a nursing professional while dealing with end of life care in the ICU as a nurse as well as dealing with end of life care as a patient and family member.

  1. 15

    The Journey of Death

    Death, for many nurses, is the enemy. We come to work ready to conquer it or, at the very least beat it back, beat it down for another hour or another day. However, I never felt that way; as a patient, as a family member, or as a nurse. Death was never wanted, never welcomed but neither was it the enemy nor the ultimate loss in a battle of good vs. evil.

    For, you see, there is no battle with death, not really. It has allowed us to think we have won other battles but it was only a trick of the ego, our ego, as death was never truly in those fights. For, you see, when death has truly come there is no beating it back, there is no winning. In those moments when you know this, when you accept this, I believe nursing and nurses can be at their greatest.

    It is nurses at the bedside providing palliative care for the patient, comfort care for the families, and much needed resources for everyone involved over the next coming months, days, or years. . Yes, we give meds that make people better; we do treatments that make people well. But, we also give meds and do treatments that make people comfortable and make the days to follow bearable.

    For me, palliative care was the one job in nursing that made me just a little bit better, both as a nurse and as a person. For those that know me, my cardinal rule of nursing is ‘treat each patient as if they were your mother, brother, sister, father’. This is as important during end of life care as it is during the fresh cardiac admit coming in from the ER with his two pages of orders. In my opinion, it is one of the true tests of nursing. How do you react when there is no more “enemy”, when there is no more “fight”; When it comes down to just you, the patient, the family, and the realization of a new reality to come.

    I went into nursing after I became pregnant with my first child. The pregnancy was difficult with lots of complications, office visits, and monitoring. I remember each and every nurse who treated me well and some who treated me poorly, as just “another” 19 year old kid who had no idea what she was doing. I wanted to be one of those “good” nurses who helped people, who saved lives. However, it wasn’t until my third child that I came to realize what a great nurse was.

    I had just had a stillbirth after hours of induction and labor in which everyone knew what the outcome would be. We still waited for the cry, even knowing it was never going to come. I remember the labor, I remember the silence, and I also remember that the nurse always, always said she was going to take my son back to the “nursery”. She also advised my family that the baptism should be done quickly, for practical reasons (I was catholic at the time). It was the nurse who gave me my options as far as burial, hospital policies, etc. All I wanted was the last few days to come to an end. However, had it not been for that nurse, I would have nothing but the remembrance of the awful days that followed. Because of her care and resources I have a grave to visit. I have proof that I did indeed have a son and he lived, albeit inside me, on this earth.

    I went into nursing due to the blessings of life. I learned what true nursing is due to the devastation of death.

    It is not surprising then that it is the end of life patients that I can remember most vividly after years of leaving the intensive care unit. I remember the father who would not quit seizing and was brain dead on arrival. For a fairly new nurse calling the doctor was, at best, scary and at worst terrifying but that night I didn’t care. I called for more ativan, I called for more pain medications, I called for MORE...all through the night. Finally, the doctor at 3:00 in the morning asked me what I really wanted him to do for this man. Wrongly, he thought I had naively hoped that the patient might recover. When I finally admitted that I did not want the son’s last memory to be of his father’s unending seizing he paused for only a second before I got full orders for a phenytion drip, ativan, and morphine until the desired results were achieved. By then I understood that dying is an individual journey, but death is a family experience.

    Then, there was the homeless man left frozen in a gutter. On arrival to the ER he had no signs of life. They had managed to resuscitate him enough to have a heartbeat due to multiple drips and good air flow due to a ventilator. For one night we were his only family. We were the last ones to care for a man who had not cared for himself; To make him safe, make him warm, and hopefully take away some of the pain that he must have been carrying. For one night we cared for a broken body in the hopes that we could comfort a shattered soul.

    Finally, life does tend to loop back to your beginnings. Despite travelling all over the world since leaving the ICU, it was me who made that overseas call to the same ICU after my sister was admitted. I talked to the same nurses whom I had called colleague almost a decade earlier, one of them my mentor. I got the same responses that I had said so many times before, the words we say before the doctor sits down and tells family news that will forever change their life. You know the words. Things like “I think you need to talk to the doctor about that”, “I am sorry, truly, talk to the doctor”. I heard it in their voices that they were sorry that my 37 year old sister had just been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. I heard it on the phone in the ICU, I saw it on the floor of oncology, and I felt it in the presence of the hospice nurse as he faced my family after my sister told him she had been “healed” of her cancer because they had allowed her to leave the hospital. He looked to me for help but I didn’t have any, couldn’t have any-I was a part of this experience and I just couldn’t say what needed to be said.

    You see, I told that son a decade ago that I, too, believed in miracles. However, for his father to be completely healed it would truly be a miracle. I could tell that to the son when he looked at his seizing father …but….I just couldn’t tell that to my sister, or my mother, or even myself.

    I still don’t believe death is the enemy. I have journeyed with it on more than one occasion and each experience has left me more convinced that it is how we live those journeys, how we travelled each part of that path from beginning to end that defines a part of who we are; whether it be as a patient, as a family member, and most especially as nurse.
    Last edit by Joe V on Jun 27, '12
    not.done.yet, leslie :-D, Mas Catoer, and 12 others like this.
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    About cav5

    I currently work overseas as a school nurse. previous to that I worked in the ICU

    cav5 has '13' year(s) of experience and specializes in 'School Nurse; ICU'. From 'Apo, AE, US'; Joined Nov '10; Posts: 71; Likes: 225.

    Read more articles from cav5

    16 Comments so far...

  3. 1
    Thank you for sharing your experiences. I enjoyed reading this.
    sj20fame likes this.
  4. 1
    Well-written article. Your personal insights were worth sharing. Thank you!
    sj20fame likes this.
  5. 1
    This puts into words that which I still struggle to articulate as a newer ICU nurse. Thanks for sharing.
    sj20fame likes this.
  6. 0
    As a cancer patient many years ago I am so grateful for the treatment I was given, but, at the time, I did not realise that I had been damaged. At the age of 32 I had a Pap smear & was told that I 'had a problem'. I went to hospital for further tests & was told that I had CIN3. (Sorry if your terminology is different) I was taken into hospital within the week & cauterisation carried out. As no one told me otherwise I went back to work 2 days later. After 4 days I had horrendous abdo pain. Then I started bleeding plus, plus!! I managed to get home from work and contact my mother & my husband! My Mother told my husband to wrap me in a towel & make sure I was lying down! That's what mothers are for!! The Doctor was, obviously, called & he recommended that I continued to lie down.
    A few weeks later, still in considerable pain, I returned to my GP. He discovered, although he did not make an issue of it which I now know he should have, that when I had the cauterisation of my cervix, they left the 'tool' or whatever, turned on as it was removed from my body! I had black tissue 'bits' coming from my vagina for weeks!
  7. 1
    This article rings so true for me. I too am an ICU nurse and like most of us was "out to save the world" when I first graduated. Now I have come to realize that death greets us all eventually, be it before even being born, after a long life, or somewhere in between. I've seen the devestation of alcohol and drug abuse, motor vehicle accidents, surgeries that shouldn't have been done (just one RN's opinion), and the crippling effects of chronic disease. I've also been the one to hold a dying pt's hand while they took their last breath because no one else was there. As The Doors said...."Noone here gets out alive..." But I figure if I can comfort a family or answer their questions, quell some of their fears or just offer a shoulder to cry on, well then I've done something.
    FranEMTnurse likes this.
  8. 1
    I am a hospice nurse. I have been an LPN for 23 years doing hospice the last 7. This article is magnificent. The death and dying patient/family/staff are special and I am privaleged to be able to help and to work with these very special people everyday. I get to do my hearts work. Thank you Thank you Thank you for writing this. I am going to share it with all the people who say "I don't know how you do this everyday". I tell them I don't know how I could do anything else.
    melizerd likes this.
  9. 0
    as a former cardiac icu nurse and now a hospice nurse, i have been witness to many deaths. some i have been apart of as i turned off a vasopressor drip or turned off a ventilator. it was not until i became a hospice nurse did i really understand the role of the nurse with the dying. you see dying is a part of life's cycle. it is the natural conclusion to a life lived. providing comfort, symptom control, and support to the patient and family is the real epitome of what nursing is supposed to be. it matters if you can get a family to acceptance and to help a patient reach peace. perhaps the end of life journey is as important as is bringing a baby into this world. god bless those who can hold a hand to those who are stepping from this life into another.as one man once told me, 1 out of 1 will die. so it is important to know how to nurture those who will eventually face it.
    Quote from cav5
    death, for many nurses, is the enemy. we come to work ready to conquer it or, at the very least beat it back, beat it down for another hour or another day. however, i never felt that way; as a patient, as a family member, or as a nurse. death was never wanted, never welcomed but neither was it the enemy nor the ultimate loss in a battle of good vs. evil.

    for, you see, there is no battle with death, not really. it has allowed us to think we have won other battles but it was only a trick of the ego, our ego, as death was never truly in those fights. for, you see, when death has truly come there is no beating it back, there is no winning. in those moments when you know this, when you accept this, i believe nursing and nurses can be at their greatest.

    it is nurses at the bedside providing palliative care for the patient, comfort care for the families, and much needed resources for everyone involved over the next coming months, days, or years. . yes, we give meds that make people better; we do treatments that make people well. but, we also give meds and do treatments that make people comfortable and make the days to follow bearable.

    for me, palliative care was the one job in nursing that made me just a little bit better, both as a nurse and as a person. for those that know me, my cardinal rule of nursing is ‘treat each patient as if they were your mother, brother, sister, father’. this is as important during end of life care as it is during the fresh cardiac admit coming in from the er with his two pages of orders. in my opinion, it is one of the true tests of nursing. how do you react when there is no more “enemy”, when there is no more “fight”; when it comes down to just you, the patient, the family, and the realization of a new reality to come.


    i went into nursing after i became pregnant with my first child. the pregnancy was difficult with lots of complications, office visits, and monitoring. i remember each and every nurse who treated me well and some who treated me poorly, as just “another” 19 year old kid who had no idea what she was doing. i wanted to be one of those “good” nurses who helped people, who saved lives. however, it wasn’t until my third child that i came to realize what a great nurse was.

    i had just had a stillbirth after hours of induction and labor in which everyone knew what the outcome would be. we still waited for the cry, even knowing it was never going to come. i remember the labor, i remember the silence, and i also remember that the nurse always, always said she was going to take my son back to the “nursery”. she also advised my family that the baptism should be done quickly, for practical reasons (i was catholic at the time). it was the nurse who gave me my options as far as burial, hospital policies, etc. all i wanted was the last few days to come to an end. however, had it not been for that nurse, i would have nothing but the remembrance of the awful days that followed. because of her care and resources i have a grave to visit. i have proof that i did indeed have a son and he lived, albeit inside me, on this earth.


    i went into nursing due to the blessings of life. i learned what true nursing is due to the devastation of death.

    it is not surprising then that it is the end of life patients that i can remember most vividly after years of leaving the intensive care unit. i remember the father who would not quit seizing and was brain dead on arrival. for a fairly new nurse calling the doctor was, at best, scary and at worst terrifying but that night i didn’t care. i called for more ativan, i called for more pain medications, i called for more...all through the night. finally, the doctor at 3:00 in the morning asked me what i really wanted him to do for this man. wrongly, he thought i had naively hoped that the patient might recover. when i finally admitted that i did not want the son’s last memory to be of his father’s unending seizing he paused for only a second before i got full orders for a phenytion drip, ativan, and morphine until the desired results were achieved. by then i understood that dying is an individual journey, but death is a family experience.


    then, there was the homeless man left frozen in a gutter. on arrival to the er he had no signs of life. they had managed to resuscitate him enough to have a heartbeat due to multiple drips and good air flow due to a ventilator. for one night we were his only family. we were the last ones to care for a man who had not cared for himself; to make him safe, make him warm, and hopefully take away some of the pain that he must have been carrying. for one night we cared for a broken body in the hopes that we could comfort a shattered soul.

    finally, life does tend to loop back to your beginnings. despite travelling all over the world since leaving the icu, it was me who made that overseas call to the same icu after my sister was admitted. i talked to the same nurses whom i had called colleague almost a decade earlier, one of them my mentor. i got the same responses that i had said so many times before, the words we say before the doctor sits down and tells family news that will forever change their life. you know the words. things like “i think you need to talk to the doctor about that”, “i am sorry, truly, talk to the doctor”. i heard it in their voices that they were sorry that my 37 year old sister had just been diagnosed with stage iv lung cancer. i heard it on the phone in the icu, i saw it on the floor of oncology, and i felt it in the presence of the hospice nurse as he faced my family after my sister told him she had been “healed” of her cancer because they had allowed her to leave the hospital. he looked to me for help but i didn’t have any, couldn’t have any-i was a part of this experience and i just couldn’t say what needed to be said.

    you see, i told that son a decade ago that i, too, believed in miracles. however, for his father to be completely healed it would truly be a miracle. i could tell that to the son when he looked at his seizing father …but….i just couldn’t tell that to my sister, or my mother, or even myself.

    i still don’t believe death is the enemy. i have journeyed with it on more than one occasion and each experience has left me more convinced that it is how we live those journeys, how we travelled each part of that path from beginning to end that defines a part of who we are; whether it be as a patient, as a family member, and most especially as nurse.
  10. 1
    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am crying as I type. I came into nursing partly due to personal loss, bereavement, and, unfortunately, experiences of very bad care given to me & to my terminally ill baby. When I get my head together I will try to write my story.
    I will just say, however, that when I was on my paediatric placement, as a student, and had asked not to go to a certain ward as my daughter had been 'cared' for there I had to take all the nurses on shift to task one day due to their attitude to parents. None of them had children therefore none really had any idea of what it is like to have a very sick child. I can only hope that my tirade made at least some of them consider their practice.
    FranEMTnurse likes this.
  11. 0
    thanks for sharing. hope someday i can also write things like this to relish myself .

    wish you all the best!


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