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Good Grief: Acknowledging Love and Loss in the NICU

Babies and their families have their own stories. As NICU nurses, these stories are our stories too. They are our forever stories that are etched in our memory and have chipped away at our hearts, sometimes leaving a mark so profound that we are changed forever.
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Babies and their families have their own stories. The time spent in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is something parents never forget. No matter how long the journey was or how medically complicated it became, the emotional aspects can be life altering with the memories becoming defining moments in their lives. The NICU can spark emotions that parents never knew existed, emotions so intense that only those who have been through it can truly understand. Sometimes this journey is full of wonder and hope, and often great miracles. But there are moments that are full of raw emotions, fear of the unknown, and pain so incredibly deep, that only God can begin to touch its surface.

As NICU nurses, these stories are our stories too. They are our forever stories that are etched in our memory and have chipped away at our hearts, sometimes leaving a mark so profound that we are changed forever. They are the stories we had hoped not to tell but are often defining moments in our lives as well.

NICU nurses make personal connections with babies, with parents, and with the family. We are there from the beginning, through the medical and emotional ups and downs and we become not only the baby's, but the family's biggest cheerleaders. We rejoice when they do, and we cry too. Their losses aren't theirs alone. We carry them with us into the world and into our daily personal and professional lives. It isn't easy watching someone who has become near and dear have their heart broken. It is horrible not to be able to take away the pain, the immense and intense sorrow and give back what had been ripped away so incredibly unfairly. No one likes to lose control and NICU nurses are the worst. We want it all to be okay. We want to be able to take a situation so fragile and help make miracles. But sometimes we can't and we too feel defeated, often questioning the ability to move on in our career, if this is really what we are meant to do, or capable of doing. Saying goodbye is never easy and acknowledging these emotions is often just as difficult.

But it helps us to acknowledge we were there. That it is something we had to survive as well, even though it is in a completely different way than the family. The emotional aspect and the impact that it leaves is profound and life changing. We are often expected to move on, to move forward, and to chalk these moments up to being "part of the NICU." In recognizing the emotions, we become more clear and present in our role as NICU nurses and our burn out rate both physically and emotionally can drastically diminish.

We all have a story, that one baby, one family, one moment in our career that defines us. Some of us have more than one, some more defining than others, some leaving a bigger impact than others; but they all add up to one amazing journey--The baby that against all odds made it, the parents we connect with from day one on a personal level, the one mom we just understood when no one else did, the moments we just can't shake, and the families and babies we will never forget. They are why we do what you do. We take these stories, these moments, and we tuck them in, bringing them to the next baby and family we take care of. These are the memories that mold us, and their impact spans far beyond the walls of the NICU.

"Every journey conceals another journey within its lines: the path not taken, and the forgotten or hidden angle." -J. Winterson

Jodi Dolezel is a registered nurse and currently works in a single room family centered care level 3 Neonatal Intensive Care in the Charlotte, NC area. Jodi is also the founder and facilitator of Peekaboo ICU, where this post first appeared.

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