Friday, December 17, 2010

The Feel Bad Talk

A few week ago I received this message from my friend Jon who is an oncology nurse.

"Can you write a wonderful meditation please on the spiritual needs of those of us who give care and support to those who have a cancer diagnosis?

Cancer patient care-givers (family) and patients get a lot of air time (and rightly so) regarding what they deal with, and I have been in a caretaker role with my dad as he was dying with metastatic prostate cancer so I get that. I don't think that the mental, spiritual, and probably physical impact of what we do as nurses (and yes, physicians and other providers as well) is well understood. Many speakers address this issue but, from my perspective, it is presented in a "nurse appreciation day" format that lacks depth and appears to be somewhat cliché. It seems to be a "feel good" talk that lasts until the next day when it is back to business as usual.

Speaking for myself (which is all I am able to do) I agonize over patient outcomes. Every patient that dies reflects another life I have been touched by, which I feel as a loss. No matter how compartmentalized I try to make my interactions with the people I am privileged to share lives with, I can't escape the impact of their death. When I don't feel that loss, I will no longer be able to do my job. This is a catch 22 situation which is not understood."

Well, Jon, I understand your frustration with the "feel good" talks. So I hope you're holding onto your lab coat because I'm going to give you the "feel bad" talk.

I know you and I know the good work you do. You say the compartmentalizing is not working out, so why not just let everyone you meet really touch you? Let every crappy diagnosis you encounter make you even more fiercely determined to live life to the fullest. Continue to feel the loss which means you will feel bad and sad and basically shitty. Whatever made you think you could do this job and never feel that way?

But here's the question I ask you and always ask myself, "Would I rather have not met this person so as to avoid the grief of losing them?" When it comes to love, everyone loses at some point because EVERYONE DIES. This is the state of our existence. But would you rather never love? Of course not.

Let yourself cry until you think your eyeballs will fall out. I've done this very recently and though it now takes my face longer to recover, my heart feels calmer and lighter almost immediately.

You can see you are getting no sympathy from me because my experience is that sympathy is no help at all. I find when I want sympathy it is because my slobbering dog of an ego really wants strokes for how noble and courageous and compassionate and "special" I am for doing this work. So I pat the doggie on the head and say, "Yes, you are noble, etc. and how great that you get to do this work. Now get on with it."

I think when we are doing our best work, we are simply channels for the Spirit. I love that feeling of Spirit working in and through me. It's so freeing because then I don't have to be in control!

But the downside of that is that I don't have control! Talk about Catch-22. We certainly have no control over Death. For me, doing things that I can control helps mitigate all that loss and powerlessness I often feel. So that means I bake bread, I make mosaics, I write, I garden, I walk outside. In all these things I control the variables (except perhaps weather and slugs).

And I spend time goofing around with friends which is why I posted the pic of me drinking a Margarita. So I ask you, Jon, what night next week do you want to have a drink?