In my experiences as a nurse, I have learned invaluable lessons about myself through caring for others. This has been especially true in my experience as a hospice nurse working with patients facing terminal illness. As anyone who has worked in hospice can attest, caring for patients and their families during the process of death and dying is mixed with moments of profound sadness and times of great joy and celebration.
With the holidays approaching, I recognize more acutely the strange mix of sadness and celebration that life and death bring. While the holidays are a time of joy and celebration, they can also bring moments of sadness as we feel the loss of loved ones missing from holiday gatherings. Thanksgiving, especially, is traditionally the time when we join with family and friends to pause, celebrate gratitude, and show appreciation for loved ones. In this spirit of Thanksgiving, I find myself reflecting not only on who and what I am grateful for, but also on how I truly learned appreciation.
I learned gratitude more deeply as a bedside nurse, especially as a hospice nurse. In speaking from my hospice experience, in no way do I mean to trivialize or romanticize the time surrounding death and dying. The loss of patients and loved ones is always sad. I only know that, for me, I have been humbled and inspired by the patients I have met who have continued to love life while facing death. Thanks to their examples, I have learned the importance of making memories and appreciating life today rather than tomorrow, and to them, I owe immeasurable gratitude.
Although this may sound odd, I am particularly grateful for photographs, not just the ones on our phones, but the real, tangible photographs that fill our homes. I have always loved photographs, and as a hospice nurse, I was especially curious about the photographs that filled the rooms and occupied bedside tables of the hospice patients and families I met. These photographs were often catalysts for great stories, and I learned so much from patients and their families by listening to them describe the places and people in each photo. Every story told from a photograph revealed what each patient most valued and appreciated in his or her life.
As patients and their families recounted their stories, I couldn’t help but reflect on the memories and photos in my own life. What memories do I make today that I would want captured in a photo? Who are the people I would most want framed and remembered at my bedside? As I asked myself these questions, I grew increasingly aware of who and what I hold most dear, and I gained greater appreciation for the people and experiences that bring meaning and fullness to my life.
Some days are certainly easier than others to appreciate, and it is easy to let the days passively roll by without pausing to acknowledge the beautiful moments that fill each day. Hospice patients and their families don’t often have the luxury of watching days passively roll by. Every day counts, whether good days or bad days.
Holidays remind me of who and what counts most, but the hours and days in between holidays must count too. To appreciate and find meaning in each day, however, is probably one of life’s greatest challenges. For that reason, I am grateful that Thanksgiving encourages me to pause, reflect, and appreciate.
Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks and create memories. As I gather around my own Thanksgiving table with friends and family this year, I’m inspired by the many people before me who have made their own memories, and I look forward to endlessly creating memories of my own. I am truly humbled and forever grateful to my patients, their families, and my own family who have inspired me to appreciate life now, in this moment, and this Thanksgiving, I hope to honor all the people that have come into my life by celebrating and appreciating life.
Alison Rogers, RN, BSN
MCN Healthcare Content Writer