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Can poems help address stress in nursing?

Nursing lecturer Marie Clancy says scribbling a short poem after an upsetting shift might help staff put the troubles of a gruelling day behind them.

Nursing lecturer Marie Clancy says scribbling a short poem after an upsetting shift might help staff put the troubles of a gruelling day behind them

Ever had one of those shifts where everything seems to rain down on your head? You hand over, go home, try to switch off but things linger? Feelings of frustration, incompetence, sadness or anger continue to buzz around your head? 

Well, I’m a children’s nurse by background, so I’ve had dark days when I’ve considered handing in my nursing uniform. But something I’ve always done, almost absent-mindedly, has helped me and seems to have the potential to help other nurses.

Since childhood I’ve written and read poetry. For me, like reading a novel, poetry offered a gateway to somewhere else, to being someone else and escaping everyday life. In the past I wrote poetry when something pretty major compelled me to, such as when I lost my beloved dad. I felt then that I needed to work hard on something as an act of service to him. I wanted to give the world a view of the amazing man I’d had the privilege to call dad. 

Inspired by Madonna

I should admit now that when I look back some of my poems have been pretty awful with terrible spelling and grammar. One love poem to my husband even contained the Madonna lyric ‘You make me feel shiny and new’ (*cringe*). 

Marie Clancy recommends penning a poem when job demands threaten to push you over the borderline

My love of poetry was a private thing until quite recently and I treated it like a hidden addiction that no one needed to know about.

It didn’t have much connection to the nursing side of me until three years ago when I noticed my nursing students were struggling with the critical care module I taught. They seemed to lack insight and the ability to understand parents' perspectives. They gave me graphic and unemotional handovers detailing parents' miscarriages, loss and bereavements that read like shopping lists. I had to do more to help my students empathise. 

Neonatal poetry

Then I stumbled across a poem written by a parent after losing triplets on the neonatal unit and realised I might be on to something. I planned an entire session around neonatal poetry, but then, as the date loomed, I started to lose confidence. Surely the students would laugh me out of the classroom? 

Thankfully my students loved the session and it was a trigger to discuss some of the concepts they had been struggling with. By the end of the module when students wrote reflective essays they added their own poems.

They confessed that the poems had helped them relate to the families they were caring for. Others said that writing poetry helped them with the learning difficulties that often made writing essays difficult. When they wrote poems they did not feel pressure to be ‘academic’ and were able to feel creative and free.

Nursing conference

Since then I have been completely inspired by the use of poetry in nursing and I have even presented this at nursing conferences. In April I presented some of my own nursing poetry. At the end of my talk some of my listeners were in tears as many had had struggles that matched mine.

I realised that sharing my story was important. I add my poem from the RCN conference about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) here as I know my grief at the loss of a child is not unique. Through writing this poem I was able to move on and continue to nurse others.


Screams and sobs piece our frightened silence,
handover is raised above; found by mum,
not sleeping as expected,
not moving,
not breathing.
Each compression jerks her tiny, baby body
She is so pale, so still

I feel rooted to the spot, paralysed yet shaking fiercely, 
racked with fear and pain for them
They cling to each other like life rafts,
adrift in the chaos
She is so pale, so still

Next I’m called forward
Marie, the sister shouts, we need you
Quietly she whispers in my ear, ‘Ok? Ready?’
I nod and take a deep breath
Guidelines swirl before my eyes
Faster the consultant calls as he checks her ECG
She is still so pale

Her daddy, he’s also a GP
He seems to understand before the team
‘You should stop now’ he says, quietly
So quietly I am not sure I’ve even heard it,
until mum screams and starts to shout ‘No!’
He wraps her in an embrace
‘She’s gone darling’ and they both crumble into each other’s arms

We are all so sorry, so sad

I only feel the tears pouring down my face as I realise that strangers are staring on the bus home, but no one asks ‘why?’
Their lives carry on
Whilst mine, it seems frozen still, like her tiny baby body.

I am excited about using poetry in nursing and keen to hear other nurses’ experiences with poetry. Have you written or read and reflected on others’ poetry to help you cope with the demands of nursing? If so, please let us know in the comments box below.

Marie Clancy, a nursing lecturer at the University of Birmingham, is writing a PhD on loss, bereavement and using poetry in children’s nursing. She also works at a children’s hospice

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