Losing a nurse: Caring for nursing students

Last week, my school suffered the loss of a recent new nurse graduate. The student graduated in May, had recently passed the NCLEX , and last week she took her own life.

While I was not her teacher (I teach in a different program on the same campus), I witnessed the pain and shock the my colleague-educators and her classmates suffered. The questions asked were: what could I have done to help…did I miss the warning signs…what was she thinking and feeling…how can I cope with the loss of this person I cared for…what about the family she leaves behind…how did I not recognize her deeper suffering…how could she be so resilient, and yet also not so resilient?

I want to make it clear that these  educators are kind, dedicated professionals, and it’s unclear that anyone of us could have made any difference in the decision making process of this nurse who took her life. I don’t want us to think any differently and second guess our past work, or obsess about what could have been done differently. It may be wise to have faith that her life ending was her business; her personal business between herself and the universe or God.

However, we can use such a tragedy to examine our work as educators of our future nursing workforce. such a tragedy provides us with an opportunity to think of those we serve and educate, and how we can best support them.

We need to begin to consider that we are indeed responsible for supporting the resilience of our nursing students and maybe we need to consider them to be a vulnerable population. I postulate that many of our students come to us as wounded healers in need of healing themselves; many likely also have high adverse childhood experience scores and other traumatic experiences….and that often leads to an attraction toward a care-giving profession like nursing.

These precious students of ours will face an enormous amount of stress during nursing school and when they become nurses, and they may suffer from PTSD or secondary stress syndrome due to what they encounter in the workplace. They may suffer from imposter syndrome in their first jobs. Fully 1/2 of them will leave their first job within the first 1-2 years, and many of those who leave will also leave the profession altogether.

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We are therefore ethically obligated to support our students in learning self-care, learning to care for others in the workplace, and building their stress resilience. I posit that these skills are as valuable as critical thinking, clinical decision making, and the ability to pass the NCLEX test.

We also need to teach them about burn-out, dissatisfaction, lateral violence, oppression of women and nurses, and when and how to ask for help. Why are these professional sorts of questions not on the NCLEX? Can you imagine, “You are writing in your workplace reflective  journal and you recognize the following signs of workplace behavior as indicative of professional burnout and compassion fatigue: ______, ______, and _____.”

We need to examine our own teaching practices and how they might be contributing to our students’ stress levels. How are we expressing caring for our students in our curricula and how are we valuing and overtly supporting their self-care competency skills development processes? How are we supporting them during clinical to care for themselves, patients, and each other? How are we valuing them as the most precious resource that they are? Are we able to maintain a caring-healing presence with our students? Are we able to role-model self-care and stress-resilience? Are we committed to creating nurses who are equipped to create positive change in healthcare systems?

I hope you will consider these questions (and of course your own related questions!) and come back to them again and again…when you work with students at the bedside, when you revise your curricula, when you prepare for accreditation or re-accreditation, when you educate college administrators about what nurses do and what nursing students and faculty need to be successful, when you advocate for individuals and communities, and when you look at your own work as an educator.

You are important, you make a difference for your students, and your work makes all of the difference in the world for our vulnerable populations of nursing students.


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