NPR TED Radio Hour Podcast: What can grief provide us?

My NPR TED Radio Hour podcast episode has dropped! 🎙

In this podcast, Manoush explores a few TEDTalks connected to the topic of Heartache. Starting at 27:00, my interview with her explores some of my bittersweet experiences as a nurse and the hard-wrought lessons grief has brought about over the years in this profession.

I can think of no other time in our lives when we as an entire world have experienced sorrow, heartache and grief as a collective whole for over 1.5 years. I hope a bit of what I share here is an encouragement, a balm for our weary souls.

You can listen to just my segment alone here, find the entire episode here, or you can click below and listen through Spotify.

Grief and the Good and Hopeful Life


In my last blog post, I took a birds-eye view with some thoughts on why we don’t know what to do with grief. I’m not trying to talk us out of grief by rationalizing. It only makes sense that we don’t readily know what to do with grief. It can hurt like hell. Its existence means something has gone dreadfully wrong. There are moments where it feels completely dark; I’ve known those moments myself. But perhaps it’s for those very reasons that I think it’s important to look at it from more angles than the typical ones we come at it with.

In this blog post, I want to spend some more time on my final thought in the previous post: We struggle to see what a good and hopeful life can look like with grief always present.

This isn’t to deny the permanent wound a significant loss can leave on us; life will never be as we knew it. But with social media feeding into the rather narrow (read: curated) ways we define a good life which often include some version of lying carefree, young and beautiful on a luxury vacation, it is no wonder that we can feel almost doomed once significant suffering or loss find their way into our lives.

What are we doing to ourselves – and to each other – when we primarily define a good life as one that involves minimal heartache and tears?

What we do when we define a good life in a narrow, idealistic way

We live superficially and don’t allow ourselves to be challenged to consider what can make for a meaningful existence even when circumstances are deeply painful and far from ideal.

We miss out on a certain depth to our perspectives and our care for others that can really only come through wrestling with harder questions and circumstances.

We create a divide between perceived haves and have-nots, further isolating those who are suffering and compounding their sadness with despair.

We set our hope solely upon ideal circumstances that aren’t guaranteed to hold up, and this lays shaky ground for our long-term sense of well-being.

What we can do when we learn to broaden the definition of a good and hopeful life to one that includes grief

We can discover a different and more solid foundation for life – a process that is, quite frankly, work. It’s built through a process of dismantling old foundations that might’ve been easier to establish, ones that are sufficient for effortless days but can never hold up in the storm. It’s built with hammering, fire, sweat, tears, questioning if it’s worth all the cost and effort. But in the end, the new foundation holds solid, firm, unshakable when everything else is shaken. It can be terrifying to build and test, but it ends up providing the greatest sense of security we could find.

We develop an intimate understanding of hope beyond ideal circumstances where there was once ignorance.

We are less intimidated by people who are suffering and develop more capacity to share space with them without feeling desperate to sugar coat the conversation.

We discover deeper and more authentic community. Is it not true that when we are hurting, we gravitate more towards those who have been through similar heartache and less towards those who seem to have never tasted hardship? Our ability to truly know and be known by one another grows in new dimensions through shared suffering. My richest and most significant relationships are with those who have shared their grief with me and who have borne mine as well.

I wish grief upon no one, but we do ourselves such disservice when we pretend that we can or should avoid it throughout our lifetime. Its reality is sobering, but its reality also does not automatically mean a good and hopeful life becomes unattainable for all who experience it. Without discounting the very real pain that suffering brings, my years of being an ICU nurse and my own encounters with personal grief have taught me that in some ways, those who wrestle hard with grief are the ones who find a deeper understanding of what a good and hopeful life really mean.

Why We Don’t Know What to do With Grief

(Taken from my nursing blog, http://heartofnursing.blog)

In my recent interview for an upcoming NPR TED Radio Hour podcast (9/17) on “Heartbreak,” the host, Manoush Zomorodi, asked a series of insightful questions from many angles about my experiences with grief over the years as a pediatric ICU nurse. Those questions have sparked many thoughts that I believe are worth exploring and sharing in a series here on grief, with hopes that we can take a closer, courageous look at grief and reframe our perspective on it during a time when we are all feeling it perhaps more than ever.

Unfortunately, recent world events give us countless issues to grieve on many levels. Please note this blog series will primarily focus on grief and loss more on the individual/personal level, though I think some of these ideas will be pertinent to broader societal issues.

And with that, the first thought I want to tackle is: Why we don’t know what to do with grief.

Before we tackle some reframing of grief, I think it’s important to consider why we run for the hills from it before we even give it a chance to just be a normal part of our lives.

Denial of its possibility is ingrained into our culture from day one.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard or said myself, “I just thought that happens to other people in other places, not to me, not to us here.” Our blind spots to the assumptions we make about life as people in a wealthy, powerful nation profoundly shape our shaky personal response to real suffering, loss and grief.

We are a culture obsessed with convenience and easy fixes. Any ICU nurse (that’s me) can tell you how much we love our easy fixes to life’s pains and problems (hello, all the medical interventions), but also how powerless and detrimental some presumed fixes can actually be (again hello, all the medical interventions). We just keep assuming we can always find a way out of our grief, if not avoid it altogether.

Grief is too closely associated with negativity.

This is a tricky statement because there is obviously some connection between the two. But sometimes “toxic positivity” is completely out of touch with reality, and grief is more in touch with reality than we care to admit. You can have days of intense grief and intense negativity, but they don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. You can also have days of intense grief and also have solid hope. Because we have such a hard time recognizing this, and we are a fix-it culture addicted to “positive vibes only,” we are strongly tempted to reply to someone’s healthy, normal grief with “At least you…(can still have another child),” or “You should just be thankful that x, y, and z.” This actually ends up invalidating and somewhat shaming what is actually a normal, healthy response of grief to a real loss. We think it’s necessary (and even possible) to somehow cancel out the grief by diverting attention to some more “positive” thing over there, instead of giving healthy space and permission to cultivate and process normal grief.

In other words, we only know how to battle negativity by trying to shut it down, which in most cases is probably wise to not indulge it too much. Unfortunately, because we almost automatically associate grief with negativity, this means we typically respond to grief by trying to squash it as well, even when its manifestation is actually a very healthy thing.

We struggle to be quiet and patient with hard questions.

With Google Search at our fingertips, we are more accustomed than we realize to having all the seemingly hard answers so readily accessible. Will my children growing up in this Internet age really even learn to think for themselves? It is in many ways a gift to crowdsource knowledge and have others do so much of this hard work for us. But when it comes to grief and loss, which are so intensely personal and complicated, we have to do the work ourselves of wrestling with the hard questions grief often raises, and this feels daunting because we simply don’t practice it much day to day. We deeply resist the discomfort of having our worldview and our assumptions of how life “should” operate be so profoundly challenged, and often prefer relief and escape from that discomfort over working towards the building of a different, deeper life foundation.

We don’t know what to do with things that cannot be explained.

Even as we work through hard questions, there remain some things that cannot be fully explained. There may be a medical explanation, coroner’s cause of death, but there are other types of answers we often search for that we simply won’t find in their entirety. Our need for control and power chafes against this. But when I’m suffering, it’s usually not clear and specific answers that actually soothe my soul. As the wise singer/songwriter Rich Mullins once sang, “And I know that it would not hurt any less…even if it could be explained.” When I’m suffering acutely, I find the most comfort in having space to lament, being accepted and embraced as I am by safe loved ones, and being helped to just take the next step forward when everything else about the future seems too murky or overwhelming.

We struggle to see what a good and hopeful life can look like with grief always present.

This, I think, is key, and will be the topic of a future blog post. (Note: it won’t be a blog post with answers, per se, but an exploration of what we do to ourselves and each other when we only define a good life in a narrow way – and what we can do for ourselves and each other when we learn to broaden that definition of a good and hopeful life.)

Thanks for reading this far. I would love to hear thoughts, comments, disagreements, as long as they stay civil and productive.

Finding God in the Wild Crash between Motherhood and PICU Nursing

I needed to walk the dog, and the kids were reluctant to join me. I had to sternly remind them that if they wanted this dog, then they needed to fully participate in taking care of him. I was annoyed.

The demands of and feelings about motherhood this past year have crashed wildly with the demands of and feelings about pediatric ICU nursing. I have at times despaired of the intensity of home life in a pandemic only to wildly swing the other direction and hold these mundane, annoying moments of motherhood in precious light when I crouch as a nurse next to a mother crumpled to the ground over losing her child, longing for just one more mundane moment with her beloved.

Doing what I do and seeing what I see at work gives me a certain perspective of what it means to say God is always good, and God is always with us. It holds space for really, really big messes in life, and big messes in my own heart. He’s not just good to me in my smiling, happy, healthy moments with my children. He’s good because He gives hope for the long perspective, one that recognizes we all suffer certain ways and we are all mortal, and yet He has not forsaken us. He has joined us in those messy realities. In one moment Jesus said Father take this cup from me, in the next He said Your will be done.

I am not always as thankful as I should be for the mundane moments with my kids but still He gives them to me. I’m trying to be more intentional about capturing these #proofofmom moments in photograph and story, so when I find myself one day looking back and yearning for them, I can remember all the expressions of His grace and then look ahead with hope for the Day there is no more suffering, sorrow, death or pain.

New Blog Post for AJN: How I Would Prepare My Daughter to Become a Nurse

My kids have been asking me surprisingly specific questions about my work as a nurse lately. I really enjoyed writing this blog post for American Journal of Nursing because God knows the two occupations that have consumed my days and thoughts this past year have been nursing and motherhood.

And at the end of the day, I realize this was a reflection for myself as well – what I have learned and continue to need to learn as both a nurse and simply as a human and as a Christian looking to live faithfully and well in a complicated world.

You can read the entire post here.

New blog post for AJN: The Bittersweet Reality of a Nurse’s Limits in Providing End-of-Life Care

My latest blog post for American Journal of Nursing is up.

Working in pediatrics means I didn’t see the kind of mass casualty COVID deaths that adult hospitals saw, but death and dying are still a regular experience in our unit.

While sobering, it’s important to think about death because it’s then important to think about life and the way we are with one another while we still have breath and opportunities. Caring for these patients at very different points in their end-of-life trajectory left an impact on me, and I hope I too was able to make some impact on them as well.

You can read the entire post here.

A Letter from a Parent to Teachers in the time of COVID-19

The school year started with all the assumptions we make about how life is going to go.

She’ll go to school, she’ll make more friends, the teachers will work their magic, I will have some breathing room for myself, repeat for nine months. At the end of the year, my child will have learned whatever she’s supposed to learn for her grade level and I’ll say thank you to the teachers with a gift card, and see you in the Fall!

Come March 2020 and the notice of shutdown of school campuses due to COVID-19.

I realized in an instant that I didn’t know how to work a teacher’s magic. In fact, I was humbled to learn it’s not just magic. It’s a freaking ton of hard work, tenacity, commitment to the kids, commitment to (and patience with!) the families, incredible flexibility with each child’s unique temperament, iron stomach for politics, creativity, and an understanding of their own worth as powerful shapers of future generations even when the majority of people take a teacher’s job so much for granted.

With all the other parents, I mainly fumbled and sighed and cried my way through the first few weeks of “homeschooling.” But our amazing principal and teachers showed up to our kids and our families with a revamped plan that must’ve kept them up all hours of the night to create (and re-create). Led in that spirit, my first grader didn’t seem to bat an eyelash at all the changes. She never melted down, never complained, only remarked now and then that she missed seeing and hugging her friends and teachers. But her teachers stayed positive, engaged, affectionate, appropriately strict, and very much at the helm.

As painfully long as some of the days were with managing kids at home all day every day with distance learning, I got to see through the Zoom classes how a teacher brings a group of children together in a spirit of hope and community with an unshakable focus on continuing growth and education. I got to know my daughter’s classmates and their parents. I got to know my own child better – how she thinks, how she works through struggles, what sparks her to speak up, what inhibits her, what excites her, what makes her sad. I got to know those things about myself better as a parent as well.

By the last week of school, I finally felt surprisingly settled into the new rhythm, as exhausting as all the demands were. And then it was time to wrap up the school year. There was a winding down of online coursework, but there could be none of the on-campus celebratory end-of-year activities. There was a drive-by the school to wave to teachers and staff, where I went to shout “Thank you!!”out the window and found myself trying not to wail with sobs instead. There was a brief pickup of classroom materials and a side hug with her teacher after asking permission, adjusting her mask and dousing her in hand sanitizer. Emotions were at times muted, at times surprisingly acute, mostly confusing.

Then came the final class Zoom meetings. In a talent show on the second-to-last day, another little girl in class said she had a song to sing about saying good-bye but how everyone remains in each other’s hearts. It was off-key and acapella, but at the end of her song, a little boy then burst into sobs. I looked over at my daughter and she was quietly fighting back her tears. It was her first sign of sad emotion since the quarantine started. I wrapped my arms around her, she turned off her video, and waited to compose herself before getting back into the Zoom meeting. She said they were just happy tears.

Today. The final day of school. The online class talent show finished up, and it was time for all the children and their teacher to say good-bye. They all clasped their hands together and pumped their fists back and forth from their chest to the computer screen, “sending love” as their teacher called it. My daughter stayed on until the last minute, as one by one each little square for each classmate’s face disappeared from the virtual classroom. She was already blinking back tears but as the meeting ended, she buried herself in my arms, and we were both crying together.

This year, our kids lost so much. But in this mysterious, imperfect, painful, beautiful, terrible, magical way, we have also gained so much. And teachers and school staff, I now know that you are the most hard-working and the most magical people I know. We did it, and we did it together, but you led the way with your grit and your heart. Our family is sending you all our love.

For the Times You Feel Unseen

loquat pots

Nothing impressive to see here. People would walk right past this, scroll right past this photo and would pay no attention. Why should they? Do you ever feel this way?

The girls and I ate loquats many months ago and they asked what we’d do with the seeds. I didn’t know much about loquats, but I suggested we plant them, water them and see what happens.

Months have gone by and the view of these dirt pots hasn’t changed. I shrugged and figured I didn’t know or do enough to nurture those seeds to get results.

So today, we took the pots to plant new plants but as we were emptying the first pot, we discovered a seed that had rooted beautifully and had started its slow but eager work of growing into a seedling! We marveled and then quickly repotted and watered it. I so hope  we didn’t disrupt anything crucial with my impatience.

Some seasons we can feel so dark, unseen, unfruitful, and alone. But there is hard work and real growth happening in those seasons, even if all of ZERO people can see it. God knows the work He does in us in the dark and quiet seasons. It is a good, good work.

Resting without Apology

Ever since my TEDxTalk in September 2017, I entered a season where public speaking was a regular thing, a thread I had to figure out how to interweave into the rest of my life without letting it overtake the entire pattern. I was invited to present keynotes at various nursing conferences and also teach workshops in smaller contexts, and there was always what felt like some big thing(s) on the schedule that I had to prepare for (and feel anxious about). It was exciting and in many ways hugely affirming of strengths and giftings, but the general public doesn’t realize how much effort and intense squeezing of time it involves to prepare well for public presentations, while still trying to maintain other primary life roles and obligations.

It can be intoxicating to hear people tell you that you are gifted, that you have so much to offer, that you’ve made such a difference in the world. Jackie Hill Perry, a well-known author, speaker, artist, and mother, addressed this in her interview with the Risen Motherhood podcast when she said it’s a challenge to put that affirmation from the world in its right place while wrestling with daily faithfulness in motherhood, where your work can feel mundane, repetitive and very much taken for granted. We’re all looking for a sense of significance, and what an internal battle it was to go back and forth from public to private life and try to guard my own sense of groundedness, security and contentment regardless of where my work landed me each day.

There’s a lot of energy that goes into producing what is hopefully worthwhile material for the general public, and energy that goes into the growing and struggling with the process. My last speaking engagement was in May and there is nothing else on the calendar for now, outside of what I choose to pursue by way of blogging for AJN on my timeline, working on my own writing at my leisure, and starting the online Narrative Medicine Certification program with Columbia University this Fall, which can be at my pace. It’s a season of rest (though life with family certainly remains full), and there’s been a considerable amount of detoxing that has come with the transition into rest from the public work for the time being.

What I am realizing is that very few of us know how to rest well, or at least how to rest without some sort of apology or justification attached. The burden of guilt stifles the very freedom, joy and restoration that true rest is supposed to bring about. What is that about? Can we be more kind to ourselves and each other in this hyperproductive world we find ourselves spinning in?

I’m looking to be faithful to what God has put before me, to still serve others well, to still pursue God-given dreams. But I’m also looking to learn how to rest without apology or shame. I haven’t quite found my way in that yet, but I’m convinced that the freedom and joy that come with true rest – both on a spiritual level in Christ and on a practical level in the world – are not altogether elusive.

Four Lies of Perfectionism that Rob You of Joy

We all want joy and contentment. Much of that desire is God-given; before things in the world went terribly awry, we were created to live in perfect peace and harmony with our own selves, the world around us, our role in the world, and our relationships with others. It’s a longing for heaven, which means it won’t be fulfilled until we get there. Living in a broken world, there is then a danger in pursuing forms of perfection as a means to joy in the here and now. If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself exhausted, frustrated or discouraged from this pursuit time and time again. It’s important to recognize the lies about perfectionism so that we don’t sacrifice our hearts pursuing what will never deliver; instead, we learn to look to and rest in the Perfect One who alone can be our sufficiency when all else fails.

1.) Lie: The reason you lack joy and fulfillment is because you have not achieved as much as those “ahead” of you. Attaining to perfect life achievements is what will bring you joy.

Truth: The place where you believe you will feel you have “arrived” is an illusion; it will never be enough.

We live in an age where the charmed life seems to be all around us. Even for Christians, we can fall into a subtle trap of boasting about “blessings” without realizing we’ve simply thrown a Christian label on our charmed life posts. The result is the same: falling for the “best life now” illusion, hook, line and sinker. Once I achieve that level of success in my career. Once I become that Instafamous. Once I move on from singleness to marriage. Once I enter into (or get out of!) that season of parenthood. Then I’ll feel fulfilled. We don’t realize – or fully believe – there are challenges and new issues of discontentment tied to the role “ahead.” This is why Ecclesiastes tells us,

“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” Ecclesiastes 2:9-11, 24-25

As I wrote in an earlier post about experiencing restlessness in the pursuit of our dreams, nothing is owed to me, but grace is given for today to enjoy what is before us here and now.

2.) Lie: If people around you sing your praises with enough quantity and consistency, you will find lasting joy. Being perfect in the eyes of others is what will bring you joy.

Truth: The praise of people really isn’t all it’s cut out to be, and it can’t keep up with the neediness of your ego.

When we fall for this lie, we are always looking for something new, something better, something funnier, something flashier, to keep the stream of praises flowing our way. We should sense a red flag if we feel unsettled when there is too quiet a pause in the praise. The praise of people can be addicting; beware of placing the weight of your self-worth on its shoulders. It can rise and fall with trends, attention spans, moods, and others’ own insecurities and issues. Its supply often has more to do with others and less to do with you. Truly, the only One who is more than able to bear the weight of all of your self is Christ.

3.) Lie: Having perfect harmony and avoiding conflict in relationships will bring you joy.

Truth: We have to come to grips with the fact that healthy relationships, particularly the closest ones, will inevitably include conflict. It’s learning to work through the conflict – while guarding a safe place for one another – that brings about deeper love, a fuller experience of grace and forgiveness, and stronger character.

While it’s true we need general health in our relationships, we need to be careful not to equate “healthy” with “conflict-free.” I’ve never felt so much ongoing ‘conflict’ in my relationships as I do now that I am navigating the parental authority role with two toddlers whose job it is to constantly challenge me as they grow into themselves. It is impossible to avoid a clashing of will or personality, and for this peace-loving people-pleaser, it can be relationally confusing and exhausting. That is, until I come back to the realization that it’s not the absence of relational conflict that will bring me true joy. Because in my core, what I really want in my relationships is not to be conflict-free, but to be loving, patient, godly, self-sacrificing, renewed in spirit. These attributes are gold, but they only come about one way: Through the often-painful refinement experienced in working through the relational conflicts, big and small.

4.) Lie: When you are at your worst, you cannot be truly loved. Being a perfect self is what will bring you joy.

Truth: When you are at your worst, it is the most profound time to realize how deeply, unconditionally, and perfectly loved you are.

This lie encapsulates all the others, because we tie up our life achievements, our public image, and our closest relationships, with our very selves. So fundamentally, the perfectionists in us will be tempted to pursue perfection of self in the pursuit of joy.

What then, when we have bad moments, as everyone does? I mean, really bad moments. I mean, your worst moments when you’ve totally lost your rational mind and you’re throwing the tantrum of a 3.5 year old, but you lack the excuse that this behavior is developmentally appropriate in any way. Your worst moments when you’ve given into that sin once again and the voices of shame and hypocrisy are deafening. It’s easier to think that God and any other human witness to your behavior are merely tolerating you, because how could this mess merit any love?

When we find ourselves in the shoes of the prodigal son, clothed in rags of unrighteousness and still a long way off from the God we at some point wished dead, that’s when we find He has already run to us and said, “Yes child, I died, and my death was for you – not for you to be free of Me but for you to be restored to Me for joy. The best robe has been prepared for you; welcome home.” When Jesus took the sin of the world upon His holy self and suffered the horrific consequences for them, the Father still loved Him, and eventually raised Him to new life. Now that we have received His forgiveness for all our sin, past, present, and future, and have been donned with the robe of righteousness, how could the Father love us any less? It is profound, and it is our healing.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8

To pursue perfection in achievements, in the opinions of others, in our relationships, and in ourselves is to chase an illusion. When we can identify the lies of perfectionism for what they are, we can take our first step towards freedom from their entanglement and the subsequent exhaustion. As we run to Christ, the Perfect One, allowing Him to cover and fill us as only He can, He receives the glory and we receive the true and lasting joy.