After our daughter Alexis died at 13 months in September of 1997, I didn’t move for many weeks. I may have attended things, but I was completely numb. Over time, I noticed my brain had to “un-fog” before my senses would return. When that started to happen, I answered the call to become a Pediatric Intensive Care Nurse. The one that came to me at 2am and woke me from sleep in November of that year.

It helped to have something to focus on besides my grief, and I felt a sense of purpose while getting through my accelerated program at Marymount University in Arlington, VA. It was not an easy course but I was able to complete it with lots of help from unsuspecting places.

There was one particular day that stands out as more difficult than some of the others. We were writing a three hour exam in a large lecture hall. The instructor sat two isles behind me for the duration of the exam. I know this, because it seemed like she was eating an apple for that entire three hours.

As I sat pondering my responses, trying my best to concentrate, and access the data I’d studied for so long, I was distracted. The sound of what seemed to be loud crunching and chewing of an apple by my instructor might as well have been in my seat with me. Because the crunching and the chewing felt literal, as if actually in my ears.

Time was passing and I grew anxious. Narratives like these started flooding my brain, which was supposed to be focused on the MedSurge (10 credit course) exam:

• “What the hell is that instructor doing eating during this exam?”
• “No one else is allowed to eat in here!”
• “Doesn’t she know how distracting that loud chewing is?”
• “How do you get to be a professor of nursing, AND not have the self-awareness to either chew quietly or maybe even wait until the exam is over?”
• “I wonder if I can complain to anyone, or maybe get graded on a curve since this is so unfair.”
• “With the money I have paid for this course I should be able to take my exam in peace.”

And on. And on. And on…

All the while, my physical body started to responding to the narrative. My heart was racing. I could feel my face getting flushed and my blood pressure rising. The more I fed these thoughts the harder they were to overcome. They became more about me being a victim, than anything else. It was all about me and my experience. I was breathing fast and unable to course correct. I myself, did not have the self-awareness at that time, to “pause and plan” the way I am now trained to do. Instead I let my emotions run me right into a ditch.

Once I’d successfully worked myself into a complete “tizzy” (is that a word?) I ran out of the room and straight to the bathroom. I cried endlessly, became puffy and red-faced. I couldn’t breathe. And the narratives ran away with me:

• “Doesn’t my instructor know my daughter died?”
• “Doesn’t she know that I am here for the right reasons, to dedicate my work to Alexis?”
• “I can’t do this…I thought I could but I can’t”
• “This is too hard, too painful…what was I thinking?
• “I am not a PICU nurse and wasn’t made to be one.”
• “This is what I get for trying to have a life without Alexis!”
• “I am so nuts (stupid may have been the word I used, but I am kinder to myself now) to think I should or could do this.”
• “I want my bed. I want anesthesia. I want to disappear”.

And the exam? Totally forgot about it as I got swept away by crossing that lowered grief threshold as my run-away narrative train wreck went off the rails.

The Bad News: When we don’t handle our grief our grief handles us. Go to and search the blog for several posts about this concept that I call the grief threshold. When our tolerance for grief lowers, which can happen for many reasons, including that we are ignoring it, that grief finds a way to blanket everything else we do, until we stop and sit with it. And who wants to do that?!

The Good News: I didn’t actually run out of the room and tank that exam! Because even then as a very young woman, I had an inkling of what was happening. I didn’t have the self-awareness that I have now. But I did ever so slightly recognize what was happening in that moment: I was physically reacting to a neutral environmental cue and my brain was making that cue wrong and bad. Once I took a couple of deep breaths, and reminded myself that apples are good (or whatever I made up to replace the negative label) I moved on. And in truth never noticed it again after that.

More Bad News: When we are owned by our grief, it lurks around waiting to jump on us as soon as the chance arises. It’s slithering over the ground looking for an opening, a split second where either joy or sorrow force our guard and our grief threshold down and boom! It’s in! We never feel fully at ease, knowing that our broken hearts underpin everything else in our experience. We let a little in, we let a little out, here, and there when we feel brave enough.  But eventually every so often we realize we have been attacked by the grief gremlin.

More Good News: We can aim to make peace with that grief gremlin. Notice I said “aim” to make peace. Because even that intention is a pretty ambitious undertaking, compared to the usual armor we wear to block grief in any form as fast as possible.  If we can make a little peace, we can raise that threshold ever so slightly.  And when the momentum builds, we start to let a little “more” in and a little “more” out.  In this way, we begin to restore our grief threshold to its higher, former level, and get on with our days, exams or apples, whatever the case may be.

I actually loved nursing school.  What an amazing group of people I got to learn from and with.  A few years after graduation I was actually invited back to speak the University’s pediatric nursing students about my experience as a mom, in the hospital units with my sick child.  I gave what I had and tried to convey the critical role that the nurse plays in the hospital dynamic.  I remember saying something like:

No different than being a waitress in a restaurant, the entire experience of the customer can be made or broken by you.”

In doing so, I felt like my horrific experience of caring for, and ultimately losing my daughter was becoming fuel for someone else’s healing.  And well, I guess you could say I have been looking for more impactful ways of doing that ever since.

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