Protect The Wound Your Heart Is Carrying

Dear Barbara, I am a hospice nurse struggling with going back to work while still deep in grief after losing my mom. How/when did you go back to work? I’m doing all the things I’d advise my patients’ family members to do when grieving. Just broken and lost. Any and all advice is welcome. 

When did I go back to work following my mother’s death? I actually quit my job as director of a hospice. I felt I could always get another job. I couldn’t get back the time with my mother. Following her death I went to the ocean to recharge before I got into writing and teaching.

We who work in the end of life field know how to care for those who are dying. We know how to care for grievers. BUT do we know how to take care of ourselves? Often not so much. Actually, we often don’t follow our own advice when it comes to self care.

To answer the above question: “When do I go back to work?”

Grief is like an open wound. When we healthcare workers experience a personal loss, every patient scrapes open our own wound of personal grief.  

Depending upon the relationship to the person that died (mother, father, sibling, partner) I recommend not having direct patient contact for at least six months (sometimes longer). 

If the person was someone you weren’t as close with, consider reducing direct contact with patients. There are other duties that can be done in an agency that do not put someone in direct contact with patients. You do not necessarily have to quit your job. However, do look at whether you WANT to quit your job and find something different.

I recommend hospice volunteers wait a year following a personal death. Often family members of patients we have cared for want to give back and become hospice volunteers. I recommend they wait a year, too.

Those who work in caring roles tend not to be just doers, but have a great deal of empathy. That quality can make us more vulnerable and sensitive to the pain of others. Adding in our own grief and we are not helping others nor are we helping ourselves when we return to direct patient care too soon.

Be gentle with yourself and protect the wound your heart is carrying. Put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Think of what you would tell others to support them in their grieving and follow your own advice.

Something More... about Protect The Wound Your Heart Is Carrying

End of life caregivers face unique challenges. As the director of hospices and home health agencies I needed to support my team as best I could so that we could serve our patients and families well. I wrote a booklet and made a dvd for hospice and home health workers on self care. If you want staff health and retention, I urge you to show CARE FOR THE CAREGIVER dvd to your team every year and hand out the booklet YOU NEED CARE TOO to each team member. We are in a tender profession and need to care for ourselves tenderly as well. 

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I can identify with Cindy’s comments. As a young nurse I lost my father to sudden cardiac death. He was only 51. My mother was only 50 and we were all devastated. I went back to work after one week. On a 42 patient med surg floor we had a code my first night back. It was a middle aged man. I was doing the cardiac compressions. We saved him. I felt I was doing it in my dad’s honor, what wasn’t possible for him. Afterwards I went in the med room and cried. It was so long ago but I’ll always remember.
BK Books replied:
Oh Elaine, what a challenging experience. Thank you for sharing it. Blessings to you in the work you are doing. Barbara

Jill Waterman

This post made me think of the grief you are walking through with the death of your husband. How are you doing today? Was Thanksgiving hard?

BK Books replied:
Jill, thank you for asking. Part of our family was here. We told stories and talked about Jack throughout the day. He was certainly here in spirit and memories. Blessings! Barbara


I was a massage therapist before I became a hospice aid. When my 20 yr old daughter-in-law passed away unexpectedly, I was devastated. I loved her so much. I also was trying hard to comfort my son who was beyond devastated. I didn’t take time to heal myself. I would be giving someone a massage and tears would be streaming down my face. I learned to cry silently. It was not good. Yes, every death and the degree of grief it causes is unique to the situation. I agree with Barbara that we absolutely have to take care of ourselves to be able to care for others. Allow ourselves time to grieve. Make sure you are not avoiding or stuffing pain down. To move through your grief, you have to allow yourself to feel.
BK Books replied:
Well said April. Blessings to you in the work you are doing. Barbara

Cindy Spence

Every loss is different and people vary greatly in how we define, process, and cope with grief. Personal loss, recent or long past, may be triggered or healed by this work. Self-awareness is the key to knowing which is true for us.

I returned to hospice employment very quickly after caring for my father the last 10 days of his life. Those first weeks back at work, I dedicated each day to my dad’s memory as a way to help me honor and feel connected to him. It made me a more compassionate caregiver and it was the best thing I could have done for myself.
BK Books replied:
Hi Cindy, thank you for sharing. I agree each individual is different so their return time will be different. That said, the guidelines I mentioned are worth considering. Blessings! Barbara

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