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I'm Too Tired to Cry | Life of a Nurse

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I have shed a lot of tears in the last 15 years working as a bedside nurse. Tears of joy, frustration, fear, devastation, sadness, happiness, heartache, love. Years of seeing people at their worst and best. Being there with patients and families on their most joyous and most devastating days. We can all relate to all these tears and how they’ve made us feel. I reflect on all the tears shed.

Specializes in NICU (neonatal). Has 16 years experience.

Are you tired? Do you let the tears flow?

I'm Too Tired to Cry | Life of a Nurse

Let’s go back to the beginning

All of that crying started right out of nursing school. That first year of nursing was hard, but those first few months were incredibly tough. Three months of orientation and I would cry and/or throw up before each shift. Looking back, I realize now they were tears full of fear, the unknown, and dread. It decreased as time went on, thankfully. The tears of fear turned into tears of empathy.

I spent 15 years taking care of fragile babies and their parents. Tears of joy. Tears of heartbreak. I’ve cried with mothers when they held their baby for the first time. I’ve cried with mothers when they held their baby for the last time. Tears of anger when parents didn’t act in the baby’s best interest by doing drugs or being neglectful. It was never my place to judge, but I cried for babies that we later found out died after being abused by parents. Tears of frustration, as we warned DCS to no avail. There were tears of disappointment when the manager’s response at times was “you can’t save everyone.”

Years went by

Tears went by. As the years wore on, I cried less. The job wasn’t easy, but it was comfortable. Each shift was different and had its challenges, but I knew the basic routine. Clock in, do my job, clock out. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

I took for granted the mundane shifts. The comfort. The familiarity. I took all that for granted until 2020. Covid brought with it a whole fresh stream of tears. More tears I had since that first year as a nurse, and then some. And, some more. And it ended with more tears than I ever thought possible. 

Why was it so hard?

Especially in the NICU? Our babies didn’t have Covid. I shed tears though for Covid positive mothers that had their babies taken from them right after delivery and brought to our unit. These babies were term, healthy, and perfectly fine. Luckily, the CDC stopped recommending this barbaric practice after a few months, but it devastated me. I was heartbroken for those moms when all that was happening. We went from encouraging skin-to-skin directly after birth to whisking their babies away. Then placing them in an isolette and keeping them in a negative pressure room and away from their mothers. How traumatic.

Things got better, then worse again, then better, and worse than it was at the start. We then had to float to adult units. Huh?! I’ve only ever worked in the NICU. Nope, didn’t matter. Talk about being thrown into the trenches. This was a whole new terror than even that first year as a brand new nurse. At least as a new nurse, I had a preceptor and support. Having to float to the adult units, though? Those nurses were way too busy and overwhelmed to be answering questions from someone that didn’t know what they were doing. “I’ve only ever cared for babies, where exactly do I put this adult thermometer?”….. “Anyone?”…… “Bueller?” Honestly, I’m laughing now when I think back to it. I was asking the patients themselves how to care for them. I’m thankful most of them were kind and understanding. I enjoyed talking with them and they seemed to enjoy the company since they couldn’t have visitors. Then there were the Covid units, ER, and ICU. So much death and pain. There were months that our unit was so slow, we were having to float to the adult units every week or two. Absolutely terrifying each time.

I would cry ... then the tears stopped

I would cry on my way to work. I would cry at work in the bathroom or stairwell. Or that one little quiet place right off the lobby by the big fish tank. I cried because I knew the shift would be terrible, and it always was. I never left those shifts saying “it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting!” Never. I anxiously dreaded it every time. And then one day, the tears just stopped. Did I just not have any more tears? I then realized I was just tired. Tired of working long shifts. Tired of not knowing what I was doing. Tired of being scared. Tired of working nights. Tired of seeing and hearing so many tragic stories. Tired of wearing a mask. Tired of wearing eye protection. Tired of getting my temp taken before every shift. Tired of having to go through a different entrance than I had the last 15 years. Tired of being so short-staffed all the time. Tired of a new policy today that will change tomorrow. Tired of the pain. Tired of being tired. Tired of crying.

I’m too tired to cry.

There are so many that have been through a lot more. Those that were and still are working on the frontlines in those units. Those that lost one or more loved ones. So much hurt and pain. Are you tired? Do you let the tears flow?

Joanne Potter BSN, RN (Nurse Writing Nook) is a writer that specializes in health and wellness. She has fifteen years of experience as a Registered Nurse in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). Her years working at the bedside and extensive neonatal knowledge enable her to write with a deep understanding of what health providers and parents want from their community.

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14 Comment(s)

JBMmom, MSN, NP

Specializes in Long term care; med-surg; critical care. Has 9 years experience.

Hugs to you. There's no bar you have to reach in order to be affected by this pandemic. Every nurse, and every human, has been affected to some point and you're entitled to exhaustion as much as any other person or healthcare provider. Please take care of yourself and give yourself grace and kindness.

I am not someone who cries very often, throughout my entire life it's just not my normal reaction. The only time I have ever cried in my career, though, was in this pandemic. After 18 months of patient deaths, families separated and devastated by this disease, and the overall climate within and outside the hospital, I admit I am tired. I'm sitting on my couch right now, thought about how I should work out this morning, but I'm not. I took my dogs for a walk, straightened the house and now I'll probably waste more time than I should doing nothing.

I've been mandated for three sixteen hour shifts in the past three weeks, and had to turn around and come back eight hours later. I've been tripled in the ICU about two thirds of my shifts lately, in addition to being in charge. I've got doctors constantly calling and telling me someone needs to be downgraded because someone else needs ICU level care, but I'm out of beds and NO ONE is appropriate to move out. We've got legitimately sick people, and right now they're 75% COVID admissions in our unit. Like you, I know that many have it worse. I'm not in Texas or the south where they're over run. I'm fortunate in many ways, but that doesn't make me less tired. 

Good luck to you. Take care. 

Nurse Writing Nook, BSN

Specializes in NICU (neonatal). Has 16 years experience.

Thank you so much for all your kind words, means a lot.

I hope you're able to get some rest. Please take care of yourself.

SmilingBluEyes

Specializes in Specializes in L/D, newborn, GYN, LTC, Dialysis. Has 24 years experience.

I feel horribly that I have long since had all my tears dry up. I lose patients here and there (not to COVID) and rarely do I feel anything but wishing their loved ones well.

I used to work in L/D and neonatal losses (and the rare maternal loss) would send me into torrents of weeping.

I don't know if that would have the same effect on me now. I have been out of L/D for 10 years now and I just don't feel much of anything anymore. I left L/D after I had promised myself if I ever felt "burnt out" and unable to give my best I would. I kept that promise for my patients' sakes. I am in a specialty now that a certain amount of loss/death is expected d/t chronic multiple organ system failure/issues.

I want to do my best and provide good care but the tears have long since dried up. I feel empty most of the time inside when bad things happen.....sad to say.

By the way, well-written article!

Nurse Writing Nook, BSN

Specializes in NICU (neonatal). Has 16 years experience.

2 hours ago, SmilingBluEyes said:

I feel horribly that I have long since had all my tears dry up. I lose patients here and there (not to COVID) and rarely do I feel anything but wishing their loved ones well.

This is exactly me. When I was writing this and reflecting back, I honestly couldn't remember the last time I cried with a parent while their baby died. I obviously feel bad, but empty is pretty much how I feel too. Glad I'm not alone in this.

2 hours ago, SmilingBluEyes said:

By the way, well-written article!

Thank you so much!

Jesijams

Specializes in Hospice, RN, ED.

I often reflect on how I used to help people live and improve their lives through acute care and acute rehab.  No, being in Hospice, I help people die comfortably.  It does get hard.  Expected deaths aren't always easier.  We really get to know these patients and their families.  A major saving grace is how thankful the families are for our services.  We spend so much time with the familes, we feel like we have a much higher patient load.  When a patient dies sooner than we think he/she will, it's unexpected and devestating.  It's like we didn't have enough time to help enough. to prepare the familyl enough, to intervene enough.  It feels often feels like what we do is still never enough.  And, that's what is really sad.  I will say that, in all my 25+ years of nursing, I cry more when I'm with crying families then when I am alone.  Yes, I'm tired.  Emotions aren't as raw anymore.  No more tears.  I guess that's okay?

Nurse Writing Nook, BSN

Specializes in NICU (neonatal). Has 16 years experience.

On 9/15/2021 at 9:48 AM, Jesijams said:

Yes, I'm tired.  Emotions aren't as raw anymore.  No more tears.  I guess that's okay?

That's a great way of putting it. It's not as raw anymore. I guess we all grow and change throughout all these experiences.

kbrn2002, ADN, RN

Specializes in Geriatrics, Dialysis. Has 19 years experience.

I honestly don't know if it's a bad thing or a good thing but I don't cry anymore hardly ever, for any reason. 

I didn't even cry when either one of my parents passed, maybe it's because when it happened I was expecting it? They passed over a year apart, both from cancer and under Hospice care at their TOD.  Maybe it's possible to become somewhat immune to the emotions surrounding death?

I worked LTC for 25 years and saw more people die than I can count. Their deaths were occasionally traumatic and sometimes unexpected. Though given their overall health required them to live in a facility instead of at home none of those deaths could really be too surprising and in many cases I considered a residents death a blessing that ended what had become a painful existence.  

I've been in dialysis now for about a year and a half and we've lost a few patients, again given their overall health while some of those deaths were unexpected none were terribly surprising. 

I have always been able to pretty much leave work at work but I do worry a little that my ability to limit my emotional reactions to a patient's death are affecting how I react to death in my personal life.

I felt nothing but a lingering sadness when my husband's favorite uncle recently passed. Nothing beyond feeling a little sorry for the family when his relatively young cousin died from COVID this Spring. I don't want to grieve less than I probably should when people I truly care for and love die and I am afraid that's exactly what will happen. I don't necessarily want to fall apart, but I also don't want to just carry on, business as usual because I've become immune to it all. 

toomuchbaloney

Has 43 years experience.

7 minutes ago, kbrn2002 said:

I honestly don't know if it's a bad thing or a good thing but I don't cry anymore hardly ever, for any reason. 

I didn't even cry when either one of my parents passed, maybe it's because when it happened I was expecting it? They passed over a year apart, both from cancer and under Hospice care at their TOD.  Maybe it's possible to become somewhat immune to the emotions surrounding death?

I worked LTC for 25 years and saw more people die than I can count. Their deaths were occasionally traumatic and sometimes unexpected. Though given their overall health required them to live in a facility instead of at home none of those deaths could really be too surprising and in many cases I considered a residents death a blessing that ended what had become a painful existence.  

I've been in dialysis now for about a year and a half and we've lost a few patients, again given their overall health while some of those deaths were unexpected none were terribly surprising. 

I have always been able to pretty much leave work at work but I do worry a little that my ability to limit my emotional reactions to a patient's death are affecting how I react to death in my personal life.

I felt nothing but a lingering sadness when my husband's favorite uncle recently passed. Nothing beyond feeling a little sorry for the family when his relatively young cousin died from COVID this Spring. I don't want to grieve less than I probably should when people I truly care for and love die and I am afraid that's exactly what will happen. I don't necessarily want to fall apart, but I also don't want to just carry on, business as usual because I've become immune to it all. 

Cumulative grief and emotional trauma can result in a significant self protective blunting of emotional response.  

JBMmom, MSN, NP

Specializes in Long term care; med-surg; critical care. Has 9 years experience.

1 hour ago, toomuchbaloney said:

Cumulative grief and emotional trauma can result in a significant self protective blunting of emotional response.

I think this perfectly sums up almost everyone's experience of the past 18 months or so. 

Nurse Writing Nook, BSN

Specializes in NICU (neonatal). Has 16 years experience.

2 hours ago, kbrn2002 said:

I honestly don't know if it's a bad thing or a good thing but I don't cry anymore hardly ever, for any reason.  

All of this. Everything you wrote is what I've noticed lately. I used to cry and now I don't.

2 hours ago, toomuchbaloney said:

Cumulative grief and emotional trauma can result in a significant self protective blunting of emotional response.  

This is so profound. How do we heal from this? Do we?

toomuchbaloney

Has 43 years experience.

1 hour ago, Nurse Writing Nook said:

All of this. Everything you wrote is what I've noticed lately. I used to cry and now I don't.

This is so profound. How do we heal from this? Do we?

It's difficult to heal from a gut punch while you are getting slapped and kicked...you survive now and heal your wounds in the calm. 

I don't mean to be glib, but people will need to find group support where they can find it.  Sometimes employer based interactions don't feel safe but sometimes they are great. Employers aren't often as committed to the support as is needed for the health of the victims.  Our entire health system has sort of diminished and under stressed the importance of good mental health hygiene.