A Way to Honor Life

Cortney Davis - Redding, Connecticut
As heard on All Things Considered, February 5, 2007
Cortney Davis
home page photo: Carol Kaliff

Nurse Cortney Davis frequently encounters grief. For years, she sought to counter it with cheer and consolation, but now believes grief is to be embraced as a way of honoring of the fragility of life.

Age Group: 50 - 65

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 good-bye 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.”

Cortney Davis is a nurse practitioner living in Redding, Conn. As a writer, Davis has garnered an NEA Poetry Fellowship and two Connecticut Commission on the Arts poetry grants. Her latest book is "When the Nurse Becomes a Patient: A Story in Words and Images."

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.