Caring Vicariously

I couldn't be there to care for my grandmother as she died. While grieving this lost time I found solace in the fact that I have provided many patients with the means to have a dignified death. This experience has strengthened my belief that nursing is a calling. As people, we have different beliefs, but as nurses, we all believe in the Golden Rule.


It has been two weeks since I found out that my grandmother was in the hospital, ten days since her surgery, five days since I last spoke to her, four days since she moved to hospice, two days since the last time she was awake. For 81 years my grandmother has been a vibrant, healthy woman. Bike riding, swimming, square dancing, crafting, and enjoying time with her boyfriend filled her days in her small Florida retirement community.

She must have known that she was sick. Colon cancer does not reach stage IV without a person experiencing symptoms. Waiting, ignoring, and deferring treatment was her choice; I respect that.

The difficulty comes with the swiftness of decline - a sudden drop on the carnival ride that leaves one's heart in their throat. As a nurse, as a granddaughter, and as a person I want to be there for her. I want to swab her dry lips, arrange her pillows, and hold her hand.

The gulf between me and her bedside is filled with geography, time, money, and obligations to my family and work. The guilt at not being there to care for her is enormous. After all, I work with cancer patients daily. I do all of the things that I want to do for her for strangers. Wait...I do it for strangers.

Another family recently experienced a profound loss. I first met Ms. Smith when she was recovering from cancer surgery on my unit. She was beautiful, kind, generous, and funny. She was a gentle soul and I could tell that she had worked with children for most of her life.

When I meet patients like her, my fondest hope is that I will never see them again.

Don't take that the wrong way.

If I don't see them it means that they are doing well.

Ms. Smith was readmitted to the unit more times than I can remember with complications from her treatment. Despite losing her hair, appetite, and eventually her physical mobility, she never lost the qualities that made her so special to the staff and so loved by her family. In her last days I was her nurse. I swabbed her lips, I kept her dry, and I gave her medications to keep her comfortable. When she passed I paid my last respects as I placed her in the shroud.

Unsurprisingly Ms. Smith has been on my mind for the past two weeks.

I believe my memories of caring for her are helping me cope with the fact that I cannot be there for my own grandmother. I also believe that there is a nurse somewhere in Florida who is caring for my grandmother in the same way that he/she would care for their own family member.

Providing nursing care for the sick and dying requires a sort of suspended reality. That is not a stranger in that bed, that is your mother, father, grandparent, or child. As a profession, we have a collective belief in the Golden Rule.

This belief may be tested daily by the stresses of the job but we must never let it waiver. Somewhere out there a family member is holding out hope that you are treating their loved one as your own. To every nurse that reads this, please keep the belief in the Golden Rule alive because, one day, as I have, you may find yourself in a similar situation.

I am in my third year of nursing. I work with women who are generally admitted with cancer surgery or complications from cancer treatment.

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5,978 Posts

Specializes in Oncology; medical specialty website.

I hope your grandmother has the kind of nurse caring for you that you provide for your cancer patients.


51 Posts

I feel your pain in not being able to be there for your Grandmother. My mother passed without the family there.

However, I do commend you and thank you the wonderful care you give your patients. That is how I treat y patients, however, I a not in oncology. You need to be a special person to be able to handle that!!! God Bless you!!!

Has 3 years experience.

I am totally feeling your pain about not being able to be there for your grandmother. I too have a sick grandmother who has steadily been declining and I don't think she'll make it past the year 2014. She is in India. I can't go because I don't have enough PTO and I just had a change in job status. My mother is now moving back to India from the US for the long term, and I so wish I could go.

The best way I can help is by advising my mother about nursing care, so she can pass those recommendations on to the nurses caring for my grandmother. It's been revealing, this whole thing. Lot of basic nursing knowledge that I take for granted here, the nurses over there don't know. Like repositioning a bed bound patient so that they don't develop pressure ulcers. I'm also buying some basic nursing care supplies to send over with my mother, stuff that is not readily available in India.

anon456, BSN, RN

7 Articles; 1,144 Posts

Aww that brought tears to my eyes! Well said!

And I will keep your grandmother in my prayers-- and her nurses.


14 Posts

So beautiful. You are a kind and loving person. It takes a special person to be a nurse. Know that you make a difference in all that you do.

marshmallownurse, ASN, RN

2 Articles; 26 Posts

I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for the reminder to keep the Golden Rule going. It's so easy to forget such an important principle.


1 Article; 25 Posts

Thank you all for your kind words. My grandmother died yesterday. She is square-dancing in heaven with my grandfather.


1,026 Posts

This made me cry. Thanks for sharing this story. And I am pretty sure they're both dancing now.

NutmeggeRN, BSN

8 Articles; 4,573 Posts

Specializes in kids. Has 40 years experience.
Thank you all for your kind words. My grandmother died yesterday. She is square-dancing in heaven with my grandfather.

And she is in good company. ((Hugs))

I am so sorry for your loss:(I lost my grandpa to complications from COPD in January and being a CNA made it hard for me to sit there with him just knowing what was physically happening to him.The nursing staff were wonderful and it made his passing easier. I agree that nursing is a calling.It takes a special person for the job.I try to treat each one of my patients as Id expect another CNA/Nurse to treat my grandparents.