When Nurses Cry
As nurses, we have an awesome responsibility and privilege to make a positive difference in the lives of patients and families that we care for in sometimes unexpected and almost unbearable life and death experiences. In certain situations, expressing genuine emotion can be a sincere way to provide emotional support.
Although it's been more than 30 years ago, I remember the occasion very clearly. My first death on Peds as the charge nurse. It was horrible. A four-month old with a congenital heart defect was to be discharged that afternoon. He was to go home and grow a bit more before undergoing a surgery that would correct his heart anomaly.
I had just come from the room not 5 minutes earlier and the baby was laughing and playing on his father's lap. So cute..... The frantic father suddenly appeared in the hallway with the baby in his arms. He was no longer laughing but his little body was lifeless, his face very pale.
We rushed him to the treatment room as the code was called and the baby's physician was notified. Any code is unpleasant, but a code blue on a Peds floor is a dreadful experience.
The tiny treatment room was alive with a high level of anxiety and activity as the many responders crowded around the tiny pale body. Many were unsure of dosages for one so small, but were willing to help in what ever way they could. The baby's pediatrician arrived and took charge. Despite the long and valiant efforts of many, the baby did not survive.
We were all exhausted......emotionally and physically. The family was devastated as was the entire medical team, tears streaming down the faces of many. There were so many tears. Even the pediatrician was crying. So very sad..........
The parents were holding onto one another, sobbing quietly, as the doctor and nurses tried to offer their support. In the face of such an overwhelming and painful crisis, nurses were able to make a difference that day as they provided tender and compassionate care to the mother, father, and extended family....through their tears.
Because of the very nature of our work, nurses encounter many situations of grief, death, sorrow, and crisis. While we frequently witness others crying around us, we try to maintain a "level of professionalism", keeping our emotions in check, especially in front of the patient and/or the family, or other staff. Some people view a display of emotion as weakness, and will suppress their feelings, remaining controlled at all times. As a nurse, it is certainly necessary to control your emotions so you can handle a situation and provide safe and appropriate physical care for the patient. But periodically, not showing our emotions.....our humanness......is viewed as cold and unfeeling. In certain situations, expressing genuine emotion can be a sincere way to provide emotional support.
Nurses work very closely with their patients, providing intimate care to the whole person on a daily basis. We see their struggles against their disease; we hear their cries of pain. As we share intimate and intense conversations with patients regarding their care as well as their fears and concerns, we get to know more about them as a person. Because we get to know them and their families so well, we end up caring for them. It is easy to become attached, even though we try to put up our professional boundaries.
Patient suffering and death does affect us as nurses. How we respond is different for each of us. As nurses, we strive to provide compassionate care, sharing in the grief, loss, and fear experienced by patients and their families. We want to do more than just go through the motions, becoming numb to the pain of others.
Seeing that doctor cry openly after the death of that infant so many years ago, made a profound impact on a very young nurse who was just embarking on her career. My level of respect for him as a doctor and a person grew. Since that time, I have seen many nurses and doctors shed tears in the presence of the patient and/or family.
These days, I more often care for people on the other end of the life cycle. I am often called upon to stand alongside someone as they take their last breath. I still get tears in my eyes, but I don't even try to hide them.
To read more articles, go to my AN blog: Body, Mind, and Soul
Be the Nurse You Would Want as a Patient
From the Other Side of the Bed Rails - When the Nurse Becomes the Patient
Last edit by tnbutterfly on Nov 21, '14
About tnbutterfly, BSN, RN Admin
tnbutterfly has been in nursing for more than 30 years, with experience in med-surg, pediatrics, psychiatrics, and disaster nursing. She is currently a parish nurse.....a position which she has had for the past 15 years.
tnbutterfly has 'More than 35 years' year(s) of experience and specializes in 'Peds, Med-Surg, Disaster Nsg, Parish Nsg'. From 'TN'; Joined Jun '06; Posts: 23,789; Likes: 15,985.5Nov 14, '12 by RxOnlySo moving. I teared up a bit when reading. You are a great writer. Thank you for this12Nov 14, '12 by VivaLasViejas, ASN, RN GuideDoggonit, I just started leaking around the eyes too. I have a dear lady in my facility who will almost certainly be dead by the time I leave today; she's getting rattly and cool, and her urine output has dropped to nothing. But no matter how many times I've seen someone pass, I always feel so privileged to be there for them in their final moments.
What a beautiful story, tn. Thank you for this poignant reminder of what it is to be a nurse.10Nov 14, '12 by tnbutterfly, BSN, RN AdminI got teary eyed while writing this, remembering that dear little baby boy. After all these years, I still remember his name.
And when I realized that he was the exact age as my deal little granddaughter is right now.......well...... needless to say, I had to get a few more tissues.7Nov 14, '12 by FLArnThank you for your article. When so often we are told that we should never shed tears, I agree that in certain settings and in certain situations, tears are an expression of caring and emotional support for the family. When a patient I have taken care of for a long time dies and I am the one who attends the death if the tears come, they come. This is esp. true of my pediatric hospice patients. Thank you for reinforcing that we can be effective nurses and human at the same time.6Nov 14, '12 by Esme12, ASN, BSN, RN Senior ModeratorI've been that nurse......and yes I cry.4Nov 14, '12 by sapphire18, BSN, RN GuideI got chills reading this. I have shed some tears with family members as well- it is only human to do so. Thank you so much for writing this.9Nov 14, '12 by StudentNurse2011Thank you for this article; the story, writing, and emotions were beautiful. Yes, it brought tears to my eyes as well.
I've had a patient for the past two days that is going downhill very quickly. I was with her yesterday when the MD told her there was nothing more we could do for her. She's a precious lady - very gracious and ready to rest. I spent as much time as I could with her yesterday. I held her hand while the doctor broke the news to her, and we hugged frequently throughout the day. We celebrated her life together, and yes, we cried together.
Typically, I consider tears to be the highest expression of weakness, but I've learned that sometimes it takes strength to cry. Suppressing emotions is a way to protect ourselves from having to feel them. It takes strength to allow our vulnerabilities to show - and yes, sometimes our humanity. As difficult as yesterday was for me, I wouldn't change a thing. The patient was still alive when I left last night, but I've wondered about her all day today. She declined so quickly - right in front of my eyes. Being a nurse means being a professional, but sometimes it also means being human. Most of the time a patient's needs are physical, but sometimes they're emotional or spiritual. I believe it's our duty to be there emotionally and spiritually as well as physically, and I believe that's what nursing is all about.
Godspeed, sweet lady. I hope I touched your life just a fraction as much as you've touched mine.0Nov 14, '12 by NewbieNeedsHelpIve cried a grand total of 3 times at work in 1.5 years. First time my dog was put to sleep..
That is all1Nov 14, '12 by Silverlight2010I've cried at work and I came home today fighting not to cry. Had a situation at work that pushed me so far out of my comfort zone that I'd need binoculars to find it again. My patient was still alive at the end of the day but for a few scarey minutes I didn't think that would be the case1Nov 14, '12 by amygarsideThank you for sharing this article. It reaches to the innermost emotion.4Nov 15, '12 by Ntheboat2I remember the first time I teared up and I left the room to go get tissues for the family so I could compose myself. The patient was in ICU and even though she was older than I am she was still young to be dying. The doctor was telling the patient's mother that she might not make it. He just didn't know. My children are small, but I could just only imagine being that mother and it broke my heart. Peds would be too much for me to handle!3Nov 15, '12 by PRICHARILLAisMISSEDThe thought of me crying in front of a patient scares the hell out of me. I'm a male and I'm not particularly sensitive, but I wonder about things like this and how I will stop myself from doing so. I've always seen crying as a weakness myself, but at the same time I've never worked around terminally ill people so that is definitely something that I have to figure out before actually starting. It's almost a blessing that I'm only a pre-req student at this time and have nearly 2 years to figure it out.
NewbieNeedsHelp... I feel your pain, man. "Pricharilla" from my handle was my dog. I lost her on the 11th one year ago. I've thought about her EVERY day since.