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Don't compare tomatoes

A Grief Support Story written by Sophia Dunne, Support Specialist at Tu Nidito

What I saw, heard, and felt on the 6th floor of Banner University Medical Center felt like another world. A world where children are sick and tomatoes are the size of houses. 

We walked through the sliding glass doors of Banner and to the back of the hospital where an elevator transported us up to the sixth floor. A large mechanical door opened, unsealing the Pediatric Oncology Unit. We stepped through a hallway with curtains on either side. Behind each curtain, I saw the faces of children. They were all laid back in massive chairs, arms extended with IV bags alongside them. For the whole length of the long hallway, the curtains stretched, each one shadowing a child with cancer.

At the end of the hallway was the staff break room, where nurses gathered, lining the walls. A doctor and nurse practitioner squeezed into the gaps as well. My coworker and I introduced ourselves. We shared that we were from Tu Nidito, a place for children and families who are grieving a severe medical diagnosis or the death of a loved one. We even worked with some of the same kids that had come to Banner for treatment. 

We introduced an activity we do at Tu Nidito with our families, Rock, Candle, and Elephant. This activity helps us verbalize and share our experiences and feelings, something very common at Tu Nidito, but felt missing in that staff break room. These nurses spent their days thinking about others’ feelings. The concept of sharing their own felt new and there was hesitation. “I don’t do candles and elephants,” one nurse said.

We began by passing the rock around the circle of nurses. They each shared something smooth and surface-level, like a rock. They shared how long they worked at Banner and their favorite part of their job. After the stone was passed, the candle started in the circle. The candle represents something a little warmer and deeper in us. Then the elephant took to the floor. As the stuffed elephant passed through hands, everyone shared their elephant in the room, our heaviest hidden feelings or experiences.

After each item had passed through the circle of nurses, I was in awe of the people in this room. Everyone’s stones, candles, and elephants were all out in the open, and as it turns out they looked very similar. These nurses existed in another world, with a different definition of hardship, much different from the world I left when I got to the 6th floor. These nurses’ elephants were that they struggled each day after work, leaving the sixth floor and stepping back out into the rest of the world. Nurses shared the anger and resentment they felt toward their family and friends who complained about flat tires and dirty dishes after they had spent their day holding the hand of a child with cancer. A nurse shared she knew she wasn’t supposed to compare tomatoes. 

This nurse used the term tomatoes to refer to individual hardships that we all have and that all look different. Everyone has their own tomatoes, even if it’s a flat tire, so we aren’t supposed to compare our tomatoes to others. Yet this nurse couldn’t help but feel her tomatoes were massive, obviously bigger than most people’s tomatoes. Heads nodded and tears spilled. These nurses lining the walls of this little break room on the 6th floor, all had enormous tomatoes.

I realized, while they were sharing, that their stories all had one thing in common: they loved each other, their coworkers. And their elephants all spoke of how much bigger they felt their tomatoes were than others who didn’t exist on the 6th floor every day. As I looked at these faces, and their stones, their candles, and their elephants all out in the room with us, I shared my realization. We all have the same need for our co-workers’ support and the same pains from seeing what only exists within the Pediatric Oncology Unit. That is support. To have each other, people who can nod their head when you share your heaviest and even darkest feelings, because they have experienced and felt these feelings. 

That is the power of peer support, something we grow here at Tu Nidito. After giving themselves permission to share their elephants, my hope is the nurses working in the Pediatric Oncology Unit of Banner have discovered and felt the strength and comfort of being surrounded and supported by others with the same size tomatoes. Tu Nidito helps connect children and families together who have similar experiences. As I witnessed on the sixth floor of Banner and within our painted walls at Tu Nidito, there is so much comfort and relief to be found within others who understand our experiences and feelings. 

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