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Helping parents through grief leads nurse down new path

Monday March 25, 2013
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I walked into work one evening expecting a typically uneventful night. I looked at my assignment, saw only one patient assigned to me and wondered what that meant. Little did I know that this one assignment would change me in many ways.

A fellow nurse came to give me report. She seemed unusually serious, and I wondered what I was walking into. She told me I would be taking care of a co-workerís sister, who had just had a cesarean section to deliver a full-term, stillborn baby boy. I never had taken care of a woman who had suffered such a loss. I was shocked, saddened and frightened, and wondered, "How am I going to do this?" I sat there for a few minutes, gathering the strength and courage to go down to the patientís room. I was nervous, afraid and so worried I would not be able to give this woman the care she needed and deserved.

I walked down the hall slowly; I could feel my heart pounding. I stopped outside the door, knocked and walked in. The room was full of family members, and I could see the sadness in their faces. I introduced myself and walked to the patientís bedside. There in her arms was a beautiful, lifeless baby boy. I told her I was sorry for her loss. She thanked me and introduced me to her baby son, Christopher. Her sister, my co-worker, came over and hugged me and started to cry. My eyes filled with tears as she held me and sobbed. I remember thinking this must be the saddest day of my nursing career.

I spent the rest of the evening taking care of the patientís physical and psychological needs and supporting the family. The patient and her family were incredible, and through their grief I gained the strength to get through the evening. They spent many hours holding, talking to and trying to let go of Christopher. I gave them time alone when they needed it and supported them when they needed me. I took many pictures for them and tried to help them create memories of their precious baby.

As the evening went on I could see that they were having trouble letting go. I knew I needed to take the baby at some point, but they just were not ready. Finally, my co-worker came to me and said they were done saying goodbye, and I could come get Christopher. I went to the room and the parents were sitting on the bed, holding Christopher and sobbing. They kissed their son goodbye and handed him to my co-worker, and she walked with me to the door. She handed me the baby, kissed him and said, "sleep with the angels."

I will never forget those words or that night. As a result of that night, I knew I wanted to become involved in the bereavement program. I asked to go to Resolve Through Sharing Bereavement Training, and hospital management agreed. It was a life-changing experience.

Since then I have made it my passion to try to do everything possible to improve the care we give women who have experienced such a loss. I have participated in seminars, collaborated with other nurses, read books and studied all about grief, but I I have learned the most from these patients and their precious little babies. I have tried to allow them to grieve with dignity, to help them create memories and, most of all, to give them the care and support they deserve.

We have come a long way in recognizing the needs of these patients, but we have a long way to go. I recently had a father tell me he will never forget me and that I was the only other person who knew their son and got to hold him. This made me realize how important our roles as nurses can be and how we affect our patientsí lives in so many different ways. I have held, footprinted, dressed and taken pictures of many of these precious babies, and each time I do, I repeat those words: "Sleep with the angels." •


Susan Straszynski, RNC-OB, is a staff nurse in the newborn nursery and the maternal-child health bereavement coordinator at the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro (N.J.). Write to editor@nurse.com or post a comment below.