With the untimely death of the musician, Prince, my Facebook newsfeed instantly filled with posts of mourning and grief. I have to be honest, I don’t understand the personal grief many feel when a celebrity passes. I appreciate their contributions to music, art, acting etc. I continue to enjoy the work they have done, and any death is obviously sad in its own way. But I do not experience emotional sadness when a celebrity dies. At first, I thought it was because I was heartless and hardened after years of trauma nursing. But I realized it was really because I am blessed to be familiar with death, when others are not.
In a discussion with friends in regard to Prince passing, one pointed out that the death of an influential celebrity reminds people of their mortality. As a nurse and a military member, I have to agree I have a skewed perspective on death. I have been in emergency medicine for over 8 years and am routinely reminded about the fragility of life. I am familiar with death. It is never easy when a patient passes, but each case teaches me something. They teach me to cherish the days with my parents as they get older, hug the kids in my life a little tighter, forgive those who hurt me, don’t put things off things that could be done today. Each patient has a story that impacts my perspective and my view of mortality.
Many people are scared of death. They do not have death routinely confront them. To those people, hearing of the passing of a celebrity that they admired, impacts them the way my patients impact me. These deaths remind them that life can be unpredictable and no day is guaranteed. I am blessed to have many angels that impact my life. I have countless cases of patients dying in my presence, both traumatic and peaceful. I grieve with each one of these patients’ families and mourn the loss of future contributions from this person’s life, just as many mourn the next Prince album that will never be recorded.
My acceptance of the cycle of life has been a gradual process. I will always remember my first patient who passed. It was a day full of fear and sadness. I went home questioning my ability to be a successful nurse. Since then, I have had countless opportunities to care for patients in the last moments of their life. And yes, they are opportunities. Though it is challenging, my goal as a nurse is to make their death as painless and dignified as possible when it is imminent. And to comfort those left behind as they cope with the death of a loved one. I will never forget the look in a mother’s eyes when we stop resuscitation efforts on her child or holding the hand of an elderly patient as she took her last breath because she had no family around. I have cared for the person who has killed a person who wears a uniform like I do, and still shown them respect as they die. I have had patients who lose their life for no fathomable reason at a very young age. I grieve with the young pregnant wife as she holds her husband’s hand who just died and will never know his baby, and I comfort the child who was beaten to death by a parent. I have cared for the gang member who was shot or stabbed to death and the meth addict who was involved in an meth lab explosion. I have prayed with families of all faiths who lost someone unexpectedly to an accident or illness. I have had the patient who has welcomed death after a long, fulfilled life waiting to join her husband who has already died. I have cared for the patient slowly dying bravely from a terminal disease. I have wrapped up a baby who never got to take a breath of air so parents can say goodbye. Some people view my acceptance of death as a hardness of heart. But I carry these patients’ stories with me every day.
When faced with trauma and death routinely, I have become very thankful for the life I have. I treasure the time I get to enjoy with my friends and family. Each patient that I care for at the time of death is an angel sent to remind me that life is a blessing. However, there is sadness and grief with every death I witness. Many people who face this much death, struggle with the senselessness that often surrounds trauma and untimely deaths. Often people carry the pain and suffering with them daily in the form of PTSD. And there are certainly times that are more difficult for me to manage, even with my acceptance of death as a routine part of life. As an act of self-preservation, I do try to distance myself to some degree from the pain of death and trauma. I have short grief periods and mourn sometimes only for a few minutes. Otherwise, I cannot be prepared to care compassionately for the next patient who needs my presence and comfort. It is impossible to mourn every patient, grieve for every celebrity death and heaven forbid, lose friends, coworkers and family. I reserve my grieving for those who cross my path, and I personally interact with. I would not have moments of joy in my life if I mourned for everyone I hear of who dies. But that does not mean that I forget them and their gift to me. It does not mean I do not recognize their impact on others. It means that I am comfortable with death and accept it as a natural part of life.
When people are greatly impacted by the death of a celebrity, they are experiencing the final contribution of that person’s influence in their life. That celebrity is teaching them that life is precious, just as my patients have taught me. I have come to the conclusion that celebrity deaths do not impact me in the same way because I am blessed to have known so many other angels. These celebrities are angels to others to teach them life is unpredictable, they are just not my angels. They do not need to teach me as much about mortality as they can teach others. When one is familiar with death, one can be blessed to accept its role in the cycle of life. This realization was Prince’s contribution to my life. Life is precious.