When I lost Mark, my husband of 38 years, I spent a lot of time looking out to sea. As a writer, I’d read many poems about the observing the sea and its healing effects on the soul. I live in Florida, so looking at water was an easy and peaceful activity to fill the time when grief and loss hurt the most. The experience also provided a metaphor for coping, moving on, and finding purpose in my life and work.
As a nurse, you watch individuals and families experience grief and loss every day. While these moments touch your heart and elevate stress, they do not begin to approximate the time when you personally feel grief and loss of a family member or friend. So how do you deal with personal loss while working in a profession where loss is a persistent visitor?
The answer can be found by thinking about the ebb and flow of the sea and learning the principles that rise from the rhythm of the waves. When we experience loss, we feel the waves of grief washing over us, exploding in our faces, and even nearly drowning us. We move in a reactive state, merely coping and barely keeping up with the assaults and lashes of everyday living. Acting in a proactive way seems impossible and a distant goal.
So how do we step in and take charge of our lives when experiencing grief and loss? How do I get my life moving in a trajectory that will bring balance once again?
An exercise that helps me is one where I envision the rhythm of the sea. Even when I can’t be there watching the waves, I close my eyes and imagine that I’m there. I move through the following steps to reach a place where I am there by the waves, hearing the sounds that sometimes are gentle and sometimes mighty:
- Find a quiet place.
- Recall a time when you were at the sea or saw the ebb and flow in a movie or on television.
- Focus on the waves coming in and going out.
- Envision yourself stepping back when waves are coming in.
- Envision yourself stepping forward as the waves go out. (If you are in a quiet place alone, stand up and actually go through the motions as your eyes are closed and envisioning this place by the sea.)
- Begin and establish a rhythm in and out.
- Lean back with the ‘flow’.
- Step forward with the ‘ebb’.
- Breathe in and out with the ‘flow’ and the ‘ebb’.
After this experience, think about how you are feeling. Do you feel more balanced? Centered? Do you feel invigorated and ready to return to work? Consider how you will use the metaphor of ‘ebb’ and ‘flow’ when you encounter a difficult situation at work.
Another technique I use is to observe and find people who seem to retain their balance during times of stress. It is remarkable to me how some people, during great stress, manage to keep their rhythm intact. Think about the other medical professionals you work with. Who seems to keep their proactive balance and who seems to be able to simply lean back and take the stresses of the day in stride? These are the people to seek out and spend as much time with as possible. Their example will become a part of your working style as you spend time with them.
Finally, take heart by learning from patients and their families who model the lessons of the sea. My experience is that many patients adopt the role of ‘caregiver’ for their families, particularly when their death is near. Patients comfort us and remind us to heed the natural flow of life which includes grief and loss.