A life well lived is often considered to be one that has had its share of joy and sorrow. The extent of the joy we are able to experience is measured only by the depth of pain we have endured. The same could be said of a professional life well practiced. Life full of its measures of joy and grief is the subject of Ashley Chapman’s essay, “With Dignity” (Field Notes, Spring 2016).
Chapman describes how moved she was when observing her physician preceptor’s deep and genuine and human response to the news of a long-time patient’s imminent death. A response that included the seasoned preceptor’s tears.
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love,” wrote Washington Irving. It is this very loving and true response that Chapman admires in her preceptor.
A different response to the challenges of life is found in my poem “Not Every Homemade Thing” (Intima, Spring 2017). This exploration of fear and grief was inspired by my mother’s valiant life with Parkinson’s disease and the consideration of inherited illness. It is a type of “ghost” story and was my response to a request to write about something that “haunts” me. During the process, I found resonance with a quote by C.S. Lewis, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
I’m sorry to admit that during my own healthcare training, I was taught to carefully guard my feelings, to remain composed and “professional.” The thought of hugging a patient was considered too personal, too involved. Now, decades into my career, I have most definitely put that advice aside.
Because it is in those moments of true and human response, that we learn so much about ourselves and those we care for and love. The tears of Ashley Chapman’s preceptor served as a signpost that said: great wisdom and experience walks here. This was not the cool hands-off approach that, sadly, many of us were taught at one time. But a full hearted and deeply involved response of a caring physician.
Certainly the same can be said of examining our responses to our family illnesses. We must honor these messengers of grief and fear as indicators of a life well lived or a professional life well practiced.
Katherine DiBella Seluja, who won the Southwest Writers Poetry award, is a poet and a nurse practitioner. Her work has appeared in American Journal of Nursing, bosque, Connotation Press, Crab Creek Review, Iron Horse Literary Review and Santa Ana River Review, among others. Her first collection of poetry, Gather the Night, published in 2018 by University of New Mexico Press, is dedicated to her brother and focuses on the impact of mental illness. Katherine, who works as a pediatric nurse practitioner in Española, NM and as adjunct clinical faculty at the College of Nursing at UNM, holds degrees in Nursing from Columbia and Yale University and is currently working on a collaborative poetry project in response to the 2016 presidential election.
© 2018 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine