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Sense of loss

By: Mary Ellen Wurzbach, PhD, MSN, FNP, ANEF

In third grade I asked my Dad whether we would be thrown out of our home and into the street. My Dad, a chemistry, physics, biology, and math teacher and a track coach, explained our finances to me. At the time our family physician allowed us to build up a debt and pay him when we could. I used to do the grocery shopping and was humbled when I had to say, “charge it, please”. At the time I felt a great sense of loss of self-esteem. Today that sense of loss has become gratitude for a community support system necessary then for us and again today for many.

The sense of loss is universal but never have so many losses occurred to so many people in such a short period of time. My own history makes me sensitive to my losses and those of others.

I grew up as the daughter of two teachers who had six children. Given teacher salaries at the time and that Mom had to stay home to care for us, we would have been perceived by many to be living in poverty. My first sense of loss came from wearing a navy pea coat as a child. Today it would be called a swing coat, but the wearing of it made me feel as though our poverty was visible. My first purchase for myself as a sophomore in college was a navy blue fitted winter coat.

All of a sudden in the later years of my life, since I retired from teaching in a college of nursing, I have become aware of the many losses being felt by me, by my colleagues in healthcare, and by fellow citizens. The past six months have exacerbated my own sense of loss, and I can imagine the felt loss of others in the country. Because I am a nurse I can empathize with the losses of others in the healthcare system and country in a nation believed to be unassailable.

From my early years on I was fascinated with the history of our country. Civics class and history class were favorites of mine in high school and college, yet over the past 10 years I have found my state, country, and the healthcare system to be other than I believed.

Today with the changes in our country, states, and lives, the sense of a loss of a positive perspective on what is transpiring is both difficult and real. I see my state differently. I see my country differently. I see others’ biases and my own differently. The sense of loss is very painful.

Michele Obama talks of a low-grade depression, and I would not be surprised if most of the country does not feel that, some more than others. For some, low-grade depression must be overwhelming terror at where the next meal or home will be. I remember my own terror as a child wondering whether we would be homeless and on the street.

I have thought frequently about how to relieve my own feelings of loss. For me, writing is an outlet that raises my spirits. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment. Recently, I initiated a nurse essay writing award in my name; we awarded the first and second place this past February for the first time. The next awards will be given in January 2021.

As time passes I am trying to find other means of assuaging my sense of loss of freedom with the necessary confinement because of COVID–19. Our local university and city libraries have begun inter-library loan programs again and curbside pickup. My husband and I go for walks on our local campus. The NBA playoffs have been uplifting.

My primary sense is that perseverance, patience, and waiting as hopefully as possible alleviate some of my general sense of loss. Small acts of kindness and gratitude may blunt some of the sense of loss. There is a suggestion that one think of reasons for gratitude daily. Every night at bedtime I think of the small kindnesses of the day.

Some reinterpretation of one’s circumstance also helps. Think of things for which one is grateful. Try to help others. Take care of others. Try to understand others. Maybe it is the nurse in me but helping others, giving and experiencing kindness, being grateful and trying to be hopeful quell, somewhat, my sense of loss of joy.

Recently, our country has come to be seen as unjust, unfair, and dishonest by some. This results in a sense of loss of faith in our government, but we can change this loss. There are internal and external actions we can take to negate our sense of loss related to a lack of faith in our governing bodies. Being more civically involved may make us feel more empowered and in control. We can be more involved as citizens. We can join or volunteer with organizations that help others, (food programs, nursing homes, homeless shelters.)

Internally, we can remind ourselves of all of our graces: our abilities, our vocations and avocations, our attitudes of kindness, gratitude and hope. For some sustenance is writing, for others walking or reading. Still others find solace in social engagement, civic, or humanitarian involvement.

Whether we are a healthcare provider or one of those who quarantine and wait, we’re all serving a higher purpose—preserving our American mandate to protect and serve the greater good. It’s a communitarian ethic that supports the individualism in which we take pride as nurses and citizens.

Our parents and grandparents had severe challenges but met them. We can meet ours too. We need to believe in hard work and perseverance. Patience at this time may be another answer.

Some of the sense of loss can be alleviated with support, some with small kindnesses, some with physical exercise, some with a sense of acknowledgment, and some with family and neighborly bridges. Uncertainty, waiting, and the sense of loss are, hopefully, temporary. We need to be patient and progressively optimistic. At the very least, in the future we may reinterpret our loss as an opportunity for communal solidarity. I no longer feel loss when thinking of my childhood experiences of relative poverty—I feel only gratitude to a grocer, physician, and an entire community.

Mary Ellen Wurzbach is John McNaughton Rosebush Professor Emerita, University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh in Oshkosh Wisconsin.

The views and opinions expressed by Perspectives contributors are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the American Nurses Association, the Editorial Advisory Board members, or the Publisher, Editors and staff of American Nurse Journal. These are opinion pieces and are not peer reviewed.

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