How a stoic nurse deals with death in the ER…

Rick Martinez

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"Memento mori - remember death! These are important words. If we kept in mind that we will soon inevitably die, our lives would be completely different. If a person knows that he will die in a half hour, he certainly will not bother doing trivial, stupid, or, especially, bad things during this half hour. Perhaps you have half a century before you die-what makes this any different from a half hour?" Leo Tolstoy

Some of us nurses are what one would say, "long in the tooth." 

Around the block, old-timer, sage one, etc. The point is some of us have been doing this for a bit. Nursing, I mean. Me? I've been an RN since 1995. So yeah. 

And we've probably seen it all. Like literally ALL, and while this isn't about the things we see or do, the truth is that we can't help but never forget.


Events and patients become seared into our brains, hearts, and souls.

One of those forever imprinted memories is a question I heard and have been asked many times. As a preceptor for young nurses, as a leader, and even as a CEO of a large nurse staffing firm…

"Rick, what's it like to see someone die?"

This isn't something that mainstream folks ever ask. Mainly because it's off-putting but also because your state of mind would come into question. It's not a "normal" ask. So I'm gonna let that sit there a second. Especially for the folks who may have stumbled into this micro-essay, are not healthcare providers, and may be a little taken aback.

Even shocked.

One of the hard realities of deciding to and becoming a nurse is the inescapable fact that being around death is not a matter of if but when.

The thing is, there is no way to prepare oneself for this.


There is no amount of schooling, watching TV dramas, even reading and absorbing books or articles that can prepare you for this event. In our profession, one might say it's part of the job.

And stoicism? 

Where does that even fit into this? I can hear some of you asking, maybe even chastising me for not crediting my faith, religion, or some other higher power that is not related to some ancient philosopher.

I'll write about that later. For now, I want to share three simple ways that stoic philosophy has helped me better view and deal with the inevitable that we all face. 

And you don't even need to be a nurse to adapt these into your life.

So rather than offer some sort of sage advice for a young nurse, I always shared these few items.

Warmth. There will come a time when you are holding someone's hand in their last moments. You'll feel a final, frail grip. And then a release. The release is as much for you as it is for them. Don't ever hide what you're feeling, and don't ever take that moment for granted. It will tear you up inside but remember why you're there. Remember why you were called to do this job…

Emotion. It was implied one time that as a trauma nurse, I surely must put up an emotional wall between me and my "work" to make it through a day or a shift. To make it through those sad cases. The violent ones. The traumatic ones. No. I tell them, no, and I let young nurses know to not ever put up an emotional wall. One of the beauties and gifts that we offer as caregivers is empathy. And yes, it drains you and saddens you and scars you, but that's what makes this job one of the best in the world. To feel. To be. To cry. To save. And if one chooses to put up that wall, then, in my opinion, you waste one of the biggest reasons you chose this profession. For others…

Life. With every passing, there is life. Sure, I might literally mean the family members of the patient who will live on…but what I really mean is yours. While being present, maybe holding a hand, even valiantly trying to revive hope is part of the job…the more important lessons are what you will do with what you've been privileged with? Because if being witness to a passing is sad, what's even more tragic is not taking that experience and making your life that much better. You owe it to yourself and to all the people you've cared for to make every moment count...

Memento Mori. Remember that you must die.

That's not a dark reminder. Instead, it IS a reminder that in the end, we will all end up the same and to make every moment alive matter.

And at the end of the hour, the shift, the day, the week, I have one simple goal that I keep in mind.

To know that I have given my best and lived my best so that when the final light dims, I shall have little to no regret.

What about you?

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I'm a freelance writer and a nurse, exploring the world one beer, donut, and experience at a time. Writing about the travel nurse industry and healthcare, with the occasional emphasis on donuts. #NomNom

San Antonio, TX

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