A few years ago, I wrote a blog post directed towards friends and family members of nurses, entitled “How to Support the Nurse in Your Life.” While the ideas in that post still hold up today, so much in nursing has changed, the COVID pandemic being the obvious main factor. With nurses in more need of support than ever, I find it important to revisit this idea of helping friends and families supporting the nurses in their lives at this unique point in time.
1. Listen to what the nurse is actually distressed about in the moment, and stay with them there.
In normal, non-pandemic times, nurses already have many people, situations, and issues to tend to in addition to the actual patient. There are so many unique aspects of the nurse role that challenge us, all of them rolled into a tangled ball in the course of a 12-hour shift. If we are distressed about one particular aspect, please stay with us in your focus on the actual issue at hand so we have time and space to unpack it without all the other competing stressors vying for all our attention.
For example, we might be upset one day after dealing with an anxious and belligerent family member who was at the bedside for most of our shift. While the nurse’s friend may be tempted to ask questions about the sad condition and prognosis of the patient, what the nurse is actually most distressed about in this moment is the amount of emotional and social energy she spent on trying to deescalate the behavior of the patient’s family member.
Just listening may be enough sometimes. But helpful questions from the nurse’s friend in this situation might include: “What was it about the patient’s family member that made you so sad, stressed, or uncomfortable? What struggles did you encounter in trying to attend to those dynamics as the nurse, while also doing the other parts of your job? What kind of support did you get from other colleagues, or did you feel alone in trying to manage this?”
We can see through these questions how this friend is providing focused support on this singular issue that the nurse is currently trying to process. We don’t expect our friends and families to fix all our woes, but we greatly appreciate those who can hear and focus on our actual issue at hand after a particularly hard day.
2. Please don’t tell the nurse, “You chose this.”
I have heard countless nurses lament this response from their friends and family.
What this phrase suggests is, “You’re not allowed to complain because you chose a hard profession.” I’ve been a nurse for 11.5 years, and while nursing has always been challenging, what I “chose” to walk into at the start of my career is not what the current conditions are. We’ve grieved over how intensely difficult this profession has become over time. We are lamenting the loss of a dream as we wonder whether or not we can stick with a profession we once loved but now struggle to make sense of.
Yes, I chose to enter a career where I would care for sick people, but at that point in time, it was with the belief that the infrastructure to provide that care safely and meaningfully would hold up. The pandemic threw at us a wildly unpredictable virus threatening our personal safety, stretching our infrastructure beyond its capacity, revealing alarming flaws in our system, and robbing many of us of the ability to provide quality care and attention to our patients and their families because of staffing shortages and/or visitor restrictions. I can’t name one nurse who chose any of that.
True, I make a choice to stay for now. Each time I get up and go to work, no one is putting a gun to my head to make me show up. But it’s overly simplistic to dismiss our pain and struggles by saying, “You chose this. You still have a choice.” Some of us have families to support, monthly mortgages and bills to pay, and other external factors that don’t make it easy to just walk away from an entire profession. Some of us still do love and believe in the work, and want to be able to keep choosing it, even for all its dark sides. But we hurt in ways we’ve never hurt before. We need support, not the blaming spirit that comes from the response of, “You chose this.”
3. Help us regain balance in our lives.
In normal nursing, we already deal with a tremendous amount of stress, suffering, and death. In COVID times, we confronted extremes in all these areas. Many of us are parents who bore dual burdens of nursing in a pandemic and also helping our kids full-time at home with distance learning. Life and its demands on every front became exponentially more intense.
Many of us tend to be type A personalities, which can help make us good nurses. We stay busy and operate in a way that’s familiar to us, taking care of others and deflecting care from ourselves. However, this default mode of operating can also become a dangerously effective mask when what we need is to slow down and deal with some of our personal demons. We need honest, courageous loved ones who will call us out on our imbalance, and nudge us back into spaces of rest and beauty.
4. Community support matters more than ever.
If I may be very honest for a moment, I have had countless conversations with veteran nurses about how much we have all entertained the thought of leaving the profession. I genuinely still love being a nurse, but I’ve wrestled with the question of my longevity in this work more than I ever have before. It is friends and family who have intuitively extended the kind of support outlined here, who have helped keep my head above water when I was otherwise drowning in sorrow, exhaustion, and misgivings about my job.