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.

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.

The Nocturnists: Sharing my Story as a Nurse and Mom in a Pandemic


The Nocturnists is a podcast that has done incredible work documenting the experiences of healthcare workers from many angles, and in current times capturing this phenomenal moment in history as we endure this COVID pandemic.

I had the opportunity to reflect on the early days of the pandemic as we all began to realize that this coronavirus was to be taken very, very seriously. What was it that made me realize it wasn’t like other coronaviruses I’ve seen in our ICU? My sharing in Stories from a Pandemic: Part II – Episode 7: Remembering a Pandemic starts at 5:57.

In the next Episode 8: A Call to Arms, I share about what it was like to be a pediatric ICU nurse, a new (and overwhelmed) homeschooling mother to two young elementary age children, and a wife of a health inspector before – and then just after – the vaccine finally becomes available. What was it like to go from hoping for the best with only external protection, to finally having some internal protection on board? My sharing in this episode starts at 18:19.

We are living in such crucial moments in history, and as intensely stressful as they have been, I am grateful to be alive. I am grateful for the vaccine. I am grateful we have ways to share our stories.

On Updating my Professional Headshot

Photo Credit: Tracy Kumono

Having slowly grown in my platform and public opportunities with both writing and speaking professionally as a nurse over the past four years, one of the greatest learning curves has been with navigating this idea of a public image. Looking to see what other people in the public eye do can be both inspiring and, well, nauseating. There are a lot of voices that come at you about how you should present yourself, how you should play the game of developing a public persona and voice.

I started this journey with a desire to speak from my heart, and if I was fortunate enough to connect effectively, speak to hearts as well. My fear is that without realizing what’s happening, I’ll begin listening to the siren song that says developing a strong voice with the things I write and speak about is for the sake of cultivating my own image as someone “up there.”

This is not to say I never struggle with pride. I wish I didn’t. But I hope to make choices in every step that continually help me remember what the point of this all really is, including my choice of a professional headshot. I don’t judge people who do the arms-crossed pose; I think it can be effective and even friendly when done right, when matched with real character. But my personal comfort level shies away pretty intensely from the corporate look; it simply doesn’t suit me at this stage. I don’t think leadership that talks eloquently all the time without ever truly listening is real leadership. My hope is to always be to others, both in real life and in a headshot, someone who listens, watches, and cares for them more than I care for myself. Introverted as I am, I want to lean in, connect, be with people where their hearts are at.

Because at the end of the day, I follow the model of Christ. He was with all of us in the trenches, loved, served and taught us from that heart. I follow Him and hope to be more and more like Him and only Him. 

anchor for the years

Ten years into being a pediatric ICU nurse, I find I still grieve the saddest patient cases the same way I did from day one. It hits the day after with unpredictable tears, and I’m discombobulated as I try to reorient myself to my “normal” life and all its demands on me as mama, while still feeling haunted by the harsh reality of the story I bore witness to for 12+ hours just the day before and all its demands on me as nurse.

It’s like having this bittersweet privilege to pass through a blackout curtain where one side cannot see the other. Normal healthy families cannot imagine the agony of critically ill ones. Critically ill ones ache to remember what normal life felt like as it now feels too out of reach. I am the witness between the two sides that pull in opposite directions. On one side, I am playful, silly and tempted to be dismissive. On the other side, I am heavy, somber and sometimes over-responsible. Sometimes they collide inside me and that too is disorienting.

But in this particular moment in history, normal life is also not quite normal. Sands continue to shift, kids’ schedules continue to change, and I am looking for the anchor when I feel unmoored.

I am fighting today to remember that one of the best things I can do is carry the lessons from the darker, heavier side into the lighter spaces where I can see through the layers of all “normal” life’s demands and find what really matters for today. Loving God, loving my neighbor, my children…and being loved.

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.

Columbia University Narrative Medicine Volvox Presentation

Please join me, the editors of “The Healer’s Burden: Stories and Poems of Professional Grief,” and two other contributors to the book, Lara Ronan and Rondalyn Varney Whitney, for a virtual panel discussion in the upcoming Columbia University Narrative Medicine Volvox Presentation on Wednesday, October 28th, 2020, from 7-9 pm EST / 5-7 pm PST.

I and the other contributors will be reading our pieces, and then we will have a discussion about the incredibly important and pertinent topic of professional grief in healthcare workers.


I can think of no other year when this conversation matters more.

You can find the link for registration and other info about the book here.

https://healersburden.com/upcoming-events/

Pre-Order Available: The Healer’s Burden

I am beyond thrilled to share that this book I had the privilege to contribute an essay to, The Healer’s Burden: Stories and Poems of Professional Grief, is now available for pre-order. My essay is titled “Silent Intercession,” and I am so looking forward to slowly making my way through the rest of the pieces.

Here is a description of the book from the editors:

What is Professional Grief?

Ignore. Suppress. Hide. Work in high-loss healthcare environments commonly demands turning away from one’s interior experiences in order to rapidly turn toward the next patient. In a culture that discourages vulnerability, how can a care provider effectively deal with the challenging emotions that naturally arise when faced with death, especially now in this critical time of pandemic? Thankfully, The Healer’s Burden: Stories and Poems of Professional Grief makes a space to tend this occult grief, and not a moment too soon. In a broad array of artistic and accessible perspectives, healthcare workers from multiple disciplines bravely pull back the curtain on their experiences of loss. Despite delving into death, The Healer’s Burden eschews the twin traps of despair on the one hand and platitude on the other. Using principles of narrative medicine, the editors catalyze a much-needed conversation about professional grief by including thoughtful questions and writing prompts. This book is a must for educators and clinicians alike who wish to constructively engage with rather than avoid their experiences of patient death.

With a foreword by Rana Awdish, MD, author of LA Times best-selling memoir In Shock:
“Reckoning with grief is no small task. But ignoring it is no longer necessary. ”

I can’t encourage you enough to buy this book, and share it with the healthcare professionals around you. It’s such an important time for us to bring this conversation to light in this extraordinary year that is 2020.

Guest Blog Post for Crossroads: The Worthwhile Art of Careful Listening

In an incredibly noisy world – particularly for us introverts – the art of careful listening proves to make all the difference for my family friend hospitalized in the ICU who had only one silent but extraordinary way left to make his voice heard.

My short Crossroads blog post for The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine explores this vital concept.

You can read the post here.

Essay for Spring 2020 Issue of Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine

My essay, Best Brother, published in the Spring 2020 issue of Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, tells the story of a long-time family friend who suffered a severe spinal cord injury last summer and, like so many of our patients and families, was faced with sudden life-altering decisions in the ICU. But with a fully paralyzed body, a breathing tube down his throat, and a mind completely intact, how could he participate in any of those decisions?

The way his story unfolded was extraordinary. I never in my life would’ve seen it coming, the way he and his family found their way. It speaks a lot to the care from the medical staff as well, and what efforts they must have made to ensure his wishes were honored.

You can read the essay here.