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Perspective from grief

Mom impresses RN with ability to overcome tragedy

Monday March 10, 2014
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Anne Cassidy Szal, RN
Constance was in Room 5 on our maternity unit. At 44, she was an older mom who had lost her 8-year-old son four years earlier to viral encephalitis. I cared for her during my 12-hour shift and found her to be a pleasant and gracious Chinese woman who spoke in a lovely, accented voice. Every time I went into her room, I found her holding her baby, a beautiful, chubby-cheeked baby girl.

Because of Constance’s difficult maternal history, a social work consultation had been requested. I went to Constance’s room to inform her that a social worker would be seeing her before discharge because her history indicated she was at risk for postpartum depression. My broaching the subject seemed to open a door, and through it came Constance’s story.

It started here in this hospital, she said in a clear, strong voice: “I brought my son to the ER. He became very sick, very quickly. My other son, who was only 4 years old, was with us. We didn’t know how bad it would be. He saw his brother have a seizure. Then we were rushed to Children’s Hospital. That’s where he died. It all happened so fast.”

She then showed me her tattooed arms, which I had previously noticed. “I am not a biker-mom,” she said with a smile. Pointing to her left arm, she said, “This tattoo is from a drawing my son made.” It was a child’s rendering of a bird in flight. The tattoo on her right arm was the Chinese symbol for his name. I stroked the bird tattoo and told her I don’t usually like tattoos but these were beautiful. Constance said these were the arms that held her son as he died the day before his 8th birthday. I put my arm around her. Tears flowed as we both looked down at her new baby encircled in her arms, embraced by the brother who is no longer here.

Constance continued: “Afterward I could not get out of bed; there was no reason to live. I would have turned to alcohol, but then I remembered my other son. I had to live for him, and so I did. My son saved my life. I had to help him.

“We found Peter’s Place for grieving children. They had my son draw pictures about what he was feeling. He said he wanted another brother or sister. I got pregnant, but then I miscarried. So during this pregnancy, my son would ask, ‘Mommy, is the baby going to die?’ And I told him, ‘I don’t know, but she is alive now; here, touch my belly and feel her move.’

“I used to work in the financial field, but after this, I stopped working to be home with my son. When I was working, I would buy shoes and handbags. But now I don’t care about things. Life is what is important. The people in your life are important. I appreciate everyone in my life. That is why I am so grateful when you come in here to check on me or bring me a pill. I appreciate your taking care of me. I appreciate life; it is precious.”

She pointed to a name card she had made and placed on the crib with the baby’s Chinese name. She smiled and said the baby’s name in Chinese means “God’s gift.”

My whole awareness shifted as I left Constance’s room. I felt in awe of her, of her honesty and vulnerability. I felt privileged to be a witness to her story. Constance wears her grief courageously, her tattooed arms a permanent memorial of her son for all to see.

Grief comes to all of us at some time in our lives. Nurses often are present at the beginning and end of life. As a result, we are in the unique position to be a witness to others’ grief, to offer support, to be a shoulder to cry on, to listen.

Grief can numb us or embitter us or make us feel victimized. But grief also can be a transformative tool that can lead us to a deeper appreciation of life and all its beauty. I feel Constance possesses that insight. She uses her grief as a touchstone by which she lives her life.

Tears can be cleansing and out of tragedy can come wisdom. Constance is richer for it. And so am I, for having witnessed her story.


Anne Cassidy Szal, RN, BSN, is a maternity nurse in the Philadelphia area and has worked in maternal-child health for more than 30 years in various roles. Send comments to editor@nurse.com or post comments below.