A Way to Honor Life

Cortney Davis

Cortney Davis is a nurse practitioner at a women's health clinic in Danbury, Conn. As a writer, Davis has garnered an NEA Poetry Fellowship and two poetry grants from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. Her latest poetry collection is Leopold's Maneuvers. Courtesy of Cortney Davis hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Cortney Davis

I believe in grief. Almost every day, when I walk into the hospital where I work as a nurse practitioner, I hear crying, moaning or wailing: A young woman has miscarried. An elderly widower is holding his wife's belongings. A mother stands guard over her badly burned child.

Once, I would have rushed to comfort these people. Uncomfortable myself with their grief, I'd want to ease their sadness with my cheer and consolation. I'd hug a patient and tell her to "try to get pregnant next month." I would reassure the widower, telling him, "Your wife had a long life." I'd enter the burned child's room in intensive care with a smile, rather than encouraging the mother to weep in my arms.

When my own mother died, I was terrified, confused about how I was expected to act. Was I allowed to be the grieving daughter, or should I be the competent, grief-denying professional? I held my mother's wrist, counting her pulse as it slowed. After her last breath, I rang for the nurse. Heart pounding, I waved goodbye to my mother, her gray hair bright against the sheets, and said, "Bye, mom," in the cheery voice I'd practiced all my life. I didn't know then that I could have climbed into bed and held her, that I should have wailed when she was gone.

It wasn't until I had stayed with many dying patients and, finally, with my dying father, that I allowed myself to grieve — for my parents, for those lost patients, for all their loved ones who, as I once did, held back their tears. At my father's death I cried like a child, not caring that I made the gulping noises of unrestrained mourning. Now, years later, I know that it is both necessary and human for us to wallow, each in our own way, in grief.

I no longer comfort others with false cheer. In the hospital, where my encounters with patients are ever more distanced by sterile gloves, computer protocols and the pressures of time, one way I can still be present is during their moments of grief. I don't encourage anyone to move on, to replace, to remarry or put the photos or the memories away. Grief must be given its time.

I believe that both the caregivers and the cared-for should be free to scream and cry and fall to the floor — if not actually, then at least in the heart. I believe that grief, fully expressed, will change over time into something less overpowering, even granting us a new understanding, a kind of double vision that comprehends both the beauty and fragility of life at the same time.

When I grieve, when I stand by others as they grieve, even in the midst of seemingly unbearable sorrow, grief becomes a way to honor life — a way to cling to every fleeting, precious moment of joy.

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