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How to Deal With a Patient's Death

How to Deal With a Patient's Death

Kathy Quan | NursingLink

The Wait

The first death of a patient is intimidating at best. It’s hard to know what to expect, and how to prepare, especially if it’s the first time you’ve come across death at all. The anticipation can be especially overwhelming for those who have never experienced the death of someone close. Not knowing what to expect causes all sorts of anxious feelings. Until you have experienced it for yourself a few times over, you won’t know how you’ll react.

Death comes at us from all angles. A sudden, unexpected death can be the hardest to deal with, for you and the family. On the flip side, some deaths can drag on for weeks, months, and even years, making the grieving process slower, longer, and less intense. No matter what the waiting period of death is, families often feel a sense of guilt for a variety of reasons (not saying “I love you,” or “goodbye,” or for wishing death to come quick).

The Aftermath

Take a moment to compose yourself; it’s okay. Everyone’s reaction to death is different. You may find yourself in tears, or quietly accepting the passing of your patient. You may get through the event with only a few tears, but later experience an emotional break at home. It’s all part of the process. Over time, you will find the best way to cope with it for yourself.

I worked on a medical floor where we always got the oldest, sickest, most needy patients. These chronically ill, revolving-door patients made me accustomed to death as a routine part of our day. At times it was cruel because we performed CPR on patients who were old, frail, and terminally ill, because we didn’t want a ‘No Code’ status. Sometimes it was challenging to let go, but we did so knowing that we had done our best to keep these patients comfortable and had helped them retain their dignity. If anything, we took comfort in the fact that their suffering was finally over.

The Family

The important thing to remember when dealing with the death of a patient is that it’s okay to share emotions and tears with your patient and family members as long as your care is not compromised. Bottom line: maintain control and never become part of the problem, no matter what the situation is. For this to happen, some nurses must remain neutral and in control of their emotions. Be attuned to and respectful of the family, and if they don’t want you to participate, leave them to their own grief and express yours elsewhere.

Sometimes families blame nurses and/or doctors for a patient’s death, even if there is no fault to be pinned on anyone. Remember there are five stages to grief and anger is one of them. Nursing is a service profession. So, in dealing with people, nurses often have to absorb the brunt of the emotions of patients and their loved ones. You can’t take it personally, but you can’t lash out at them either. Understand their need to vent and accept the role you have to play. Find appropriate ways to vent your own feelings through bereavement groups, or with peers out of earshot of patients and family members.

Death is a part of nursing. You will experience it in almost every field at least once during your career. Of course some areas will be more prone to dealing with dying patients than others, such as the ER, the ICU, neonatal units and of course geriatrics. Even fields such as OB/Gyn/labor and delivery, orthopedics, and pediatrics are not immune to loss. As you become a more experienced nurse and grow in the profession, you will find your own way of dealing with the death of patients and will learn how best to help families cope with their loss and grief. And those who find this their calling may just find themselves a place in hospice nursing.

Next: Should You Attend a Patient’s Funeral? >>

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