The Passing of My Father: Nurses’ Empathic Eyes, Actions, and Words

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

Father’s Day is Sunday, June 15, 2014 here in Canada!  But this Father’s Day will be a sad and difficult one!  I will not be sending a card, present, phoning and/or visiting my dear 91 year old Father. He passed away on January 31, 2014.  It was a peaceful passing for which my family and I were so very grateful!   Upon his admission to the hospital, we never expected it to be life-threatening or life-shortening.  Of his brief six days in hospital, we had only two very hard, long days when my Dad took a sudden turn for the worst.   But we surrounded him with much love and caring and are confident that he knew of our presence during those final days and hours!

During his hospitalization, I was urgently called to return one evening as my Father’s condition had become life threatening. When I arrived at the hospital, the halls were eerily quiet at midnight as I rushed to my Father’s unit. My Father had been moved to a private room and a nurse and physician were waiting for me in the doorway.

They explained that my Father’s medical condition had seriously worsened and that they doubted he would “live through the night”. I was comforted in that moment of how empathic these professionals’ eyes were while delivering such staggering news.  During my long night’s vigil at my Father’s bedside, I also experienced nurses’ empathic actions (e.g.  bringing me a blanket and hot tea to ease the chill in the hospital room).

But miraculously, my Father did not pass away that night.  He thankfully waited until my brother/sister-in-law had returned from their vacation early the next morning. My Father gave them the blessing of being able to spend two more days with him.

On the final day of my Father’s  life, the nurses who were caring for him showed continued compassion and empathy, both in their eyes and actions.  Despite the health professionals and our family knowing my Father’s life was rapidly diminishing, they continued to gently turn him; give him a sponge bath; and change the sheets on his bed.  They explained to my Father what their nursing actions would be, even though my Father had been non-responsive.  These ever so kind nursing actions were deeply appreciated.

But only one nurse was able to utter the compassionate words “I’m so sorry” to my family and me during those final hours!   Could it be that empathic words require more courage and compassion than empathic eyes and actions? Are empathic words the ultimate acknowledgment of the suffering of others and a willingness to enter into that suffering space?  I believe this is so.

I am grateful for all expressions of empathy by those caring nurses and physician on the last day of my Father’s life.  But it was those empathic words “I’m so sorry” that provided the greatest comfort to me on that day when the world changed.  So as I approach this Father’s Day, those empathic words linger as my grieving continues to unfold.

31 comments on “The Passing of My Father: Nurses’ Empathic Eyes, Actions, and Words”

  1. Angel Lee says:

    Dear Lorraine,

    I am sorry but thankful to hear your sharing on this very Father’s Day.

    Your ‘being’ to feel, think and talk about suffering, grieving, unconditional love, and family nursing is always vivid, touching,rightly capture the essence / heart of issues.

    Trully, our love to each other, being a daughter, mom, teacher, friend, colleague, are rarely expressed timely and adequately.

    You remind me the appropriate moments to convey this love message.

    You have started and led a pilgrimage (a life journey) with all the nurses who see their professional roles pivotal to soften suffering and instill small, frequent, easily assimulated dose of nursing/love to the ones in need.

    I love you and all who are proud of and brave to be a nurse.

    Till we meet in HIS kingdom, we are still on the journey to explore, to appreciate how much love, in disguise of suffering, human can give and take from this hidden and webbed universal life force, Our Father in Heaven one day, someday somehow!

    Love and Prayer in Christ,

  2. Lorraine
    I’m so sorry to hear of your Dad’s passing but thankful, too, that your family was able to be with him and share in this amazing transfer of life force. I remember my Dad’s passing now some 13 years later, like it was yesterday . He had been transferred from an active treatment hospital to a palliative care unit in a small centre close to our home. My family had come to Edmonton with me to visit and drop me off for the week and it was joyful and loving to see my Dad joking with my children and for my husband and him to share meaningful words and silent gazes. We didn’t expect him to go so soon ( a feeling we have no matter when a loved one leaves us). As we arrived the next day we found him in a coma and the nurses said they knew we would be arriving and that they had been with him that morning as he slipped into this new state. It was my Mom’s birthday and the family arrived from various distances throughout the day thinking of a birthday celebration but needing to transfer to a celebration of the life of a Father and husband so very dear to us. He held on and we each were able to spend time with him alone and together to speak those last words, to make those last promises, to make amends as needed. He held on , as I knew he would, past midnight so that he would not leave on my mother’s birthday. He held on so that we could be with him and then he gently let go and went into God’s arms. The nurses stated in the background that whole day checking in with us but giving us space to surround him with family love. An occasional grasp of a shoulder as we left the room, and always the eyes so full of knowing, so full of support.

    My thoughts travel back to that day frequently, sometimes at the expense of other days that we shared my Dad and I. It was so special and it helped so much to be there and to share those moments with Dad and with one another. I still see those nurses in my mind and I thank them not only for what they did but for what they did not do. They made sure that Dad was comfortable but as with your family they gave us space to come and go, to play music he loved, to hug and talk and share in more than one place. They were quietly watchful and provided touch when needed more than we could say or ask for. They were invisible to most of the family but I was aware of them… in their silent caring. This is so so often the case with nursing and nurses – when we are at our best we are often invisible. We have the privilege and sometimes the grief of being present for those life changing moments in others lives and in our own. Each person stays with us, each family. Nurses are there to witness and confirm and to show us love and relief and hope. We have an amazing role and opportunity in the everyday.

    I wish you and your family comfort and him hearing your words and in knowing you over the years I pray that these memories of the love and the caring and of your father’s easy passing stay with you to give you renewed comfort and energy as the year’s progress. I tell my story only to share the blessings that keep on coming, that can be summoned at a moments thought whenever they are needed and that give peace again and again and again.

    Thank you for sharing your story and your love and your family

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