The role of rituals


“I hope you brought your running shoes,” a nurse says as soon as I walk in the building.
This is not the way I want to start my shift. I glance up and down the hall, hoping to identify the trouble before I clock in. I’m a still a new aide, but this I’ve learned: identifying trouble is the first step to defusing it.
The nurse chuckles; it takes me a minute to realize she’s laughing at me.
“Full moon, baby. Full moon.”
“Oh, crap,” says a fellow aide as he walks in behind me. “Can I retroactively call in?”
Being a green aide, I don’t know what this means…something tells me I’m about to find out.

I’m not a superstitious person; I never have been.
But I can’t deny certain…patterns, let’s call them, since working in Long Term Care. Full moons bring out the crazies, residents tend to pass away in sets of threes. Residents are highly intuitive for the use of the words “quiet day”, and will often go out of their way to make you rescind this statement.
Other superstitions, like tying a knot in a sheet so a resident wouldn’t go on your shift, I haven’t experienced to be very accurate. But they exist, believed by some, not believed by others.

In many ways, long term care is its own subculture; like any culture, it has its own customs and mythology.
I tend to view the superstitions in the same way that I do the macabre humor: as coping mechanisms and bonding techniques for the team. When we laugh at the same jokes and participate in the same rituals, it’s often easier to function as a team…not just a bunch of individuals running around doing sort of the same thing. Maybe the superstitions are also our way of grounding ourselves, or acknowledging death’s constant presence.

I once had a coworker who loudly proclaimed that nursing superstitions and workplace rituals were unprofessional. Those that participated were “ignorant”. Leaving aside the wisdom of calling your coworkers ignorant, I have to think she missed something. If something exists, there’s probably a reason. While I’m not superstitious, I do have my “rituals” or “patterns of behavior” that I follow. I lay out my uniform the night before; I wear my gait belt a certain way. I fold my care guide in a particular way and I always knock with my left hand. I stack trays in the cart from bottom to top. I feel like I have better days when I follow these patterns.
Maybe it’s exerting some measure of control in an environment that is often chaotic. Maybe it’s something else: but when I do these things, it gets me in caregiver mode. I cope better with the chaos. I’d like to think that it’s the power of my mind or my intellect that gets me through the rough patches.
That’s not often the case. Often my intellect deserts me and it’s my rituals that keep me from losing my mind.
For me, it is an odd never ending cycle: it’s easier to think like a caregiver when I act like a caregiver and it’s easier to act like a caregiver when I think like a caregiver.

So maybe the superstitions and rituals are baseless and maybe they aren’t. Either way, they help me cope and deal with my job.
Well, except for the full moon thing. That one is totally true!

2 thoughts on “The role of rituals

  1. Yang

    I’m glad May wrote this. I’ve always felt annoyed by caregiver superstitions. But I never looked at it this way, that ritual and superstitions actually play a useful role. Very thought provoking – and a little humbling.

  2. Anonymous

    Superstitions work if you believe them…a routine is the game I play by thinking out the box when giving care. You actually become some one else demonstrating special gifts as a CNA for over 20yrs…


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