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How to Deal With a Patient's Death

How to Deal With a Patient's Death

Kathy Quan | NursingLink

One of the first patients I lost was an elderly man who had sent his wife home to get some rest after they shared his meal tray together. His concern was for her health and well-being, but as he began to feel his own death approaching, he called me in to his room and asked if I could sit and hold his hand.

Being inexperienced, I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening at first, but knew that he was frightened and wanted someone to sit with him for awhile. We talked softly for a few minutes as he held my hand. I lightly rubbed his back with my other hand and he smiled, relaxed, and closed his eyes.

He began to drift off and then I noticed that his breathing was slowing down and his body was going limp. Then he took in a deep breath and came to momentarily, opening his eyes and thanked me for staying with him. In a whispered voice, he asked me to tell his wife he loved her. I asked if he wanted me to call her to come back, and he said, “No, she needs her rest. We’ll be together again later.” Then he closed his eyes and slipped quietly away.

Death on the Job

The death of a patient is a harsh reality in nursing. Learning to deal with it and knowing what to expect is a necessary part of the job, and critical to your own well-being. As compassionate professionals, nurses are used to expecting improved outcomes, but we are rarely prepared for the demise of a patient.

The passing of a favorite patient can impact our personal lives and influence the care we provide for our entire career. After all, death to most people is a major life event. In nursing, it can become a daily occurrence. Being mentally prepared to handle repeated loss will help you be a better nurse.

The Patient Bond

While death should never be taken lightly, it may mean more or less to you on a personal level depending on circumstances and your bond with the patient. There will be patients with whom you bond quickly and strongly, while others come and go.

But where do you draw the line? How close is too close when it comes to your patient relationships? Some nurses consider it a weakness to show emotion or to even let on that they care. Others believe a strong patient bond is a necessary part of nursing, allowing you to be a better advocate for your patient.

And then there are the nurses who become completely involved. Nurses in these situations run the risk of losing control and becoming so emotionally distraught that they cannot perform their duties due to grief.

It’s part of the job to give a patient dignity and comfort as they are on their deathbed, and to help loved ones through the dying process. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep your heart out of the picture when you take an active role and share your feelings, and that’s understandable. But for your own protection and mental well-being, getting over emotional and attached to each patient is not recommended.

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