How do nurses deal with death? Have you had to ask this question to yourself recently?
Death is not a surprising topic for those working in the medical field. Even then, it is exhausting for nurses to cope with this kind of loss especially when patients get close to their hearts.
It’s painful to know that you did your best for your patient to survive and yet, all your efforts are still not enough. You feel helpless as your patient dies despite the hard work your team poured in to keep your patient alive.
If dealing with a patient’s death is not handled properly, the exhaustion can lead to chronic burnout for nurses. Here are some valuable tips from seasoned nurses:
1. Recognize that death is inevitable.
You need to accept that all lives end in death. If your patient’s condition starts to deteriorate, do not deny yourself the fact that it may soon lead to an inevitable end. By acknowledging that death is a possible outcome, you can better prepare yourself.
2. Let yourself grieve.
Don’t hold back the flow of emotions. Sometimes, you need to be open about what and how you feel. If you don’t allow yourself go through the grieving process, it will have an impact on your ability to relate with other patients.
Let yourself cry if you feel you need to. You will feel better for letting it out.
3. Communicate with the family members of the patient.
Expressing your condolences to the family. Hug the patient’s relatives if you are comfortable with them and if they appear open about it.
Often, interacting with your patients’ family will help you remember and validate just how much effort you put in. It will also give you the closure you need.
4. Talk with your colleagues.
Only those who also work in the medical field can relate and understand the pain of a patient’s death. They can offer advice based on THEIR own experiences. It is therapeutic to talk about what you are going through with those who have gone through the same exact thing.
5. Pray or meditate.
Praying or meditating is a practical way of clearing the worries and sorrow from your mind. It can give you the peace of mind you can’t get from other people.
Nurses see death much too often and the emotional baggage can be crippling. You will have to learn how to let go of your sorrow so that you can move forward.
6. Give yourself a break.
If you feel you are not able to work optimally during the grieving process, don’t accept extra shifts. Talk with your nurse manager if you can’t handle maximum nurse-to-patient ratio. Set your limits as the loss of a patient is exhausting.
Pushing your limits while you are still affected with your patient’s death can lead to burnout and fatigue.
7. Engage in a relaxing trip to reflect.
File for a vacation and take this break to deal with your emotions. Try to engage in social activities as well while on vacation so your attention will be directed to something else.
8. Be outdoors.
Exercise and walk under the sun. Exercising alleviates stress while sunlight improves mood. By exercising, you can also release the tensions away. These simple activities outside work will help relieve mental and emotional stress as you refresh yourself with outdoor activities.
9. Never look for a reason.
Don’t ask yourself why it happened because if you do, you might eventually blame yourself. It’s an unhealthy way of dealing with a patient’s death. Accept the fact that it happened but realize that your patient’s death doesn’t define your skills and character as a nurse.
10. Do not dwell in your grief.
Your nursing career should not end with your patient’s death. It may be the biggest blow you have suffered so far as a nurse but it doesn’t mean that you will be forever trapped in this phase.
If you ever feel worthless as a nurse because of your patient’s death, just think of the patients that lived under your care.
Also Read: 20 Ways Nurses Can Beat Depression
Advice from Real Nurses
Let’s hear from real nurses as they share helpful advices about dealing with patient death:
“As a student before, I often wonder how do nurses deal with death. Little do I know, life will teach me a lesson about it. During my first years as a nurse, the death of my very first patient left a dent in my heart. I took care of her for weeks and yet, she still plunged into her death. Her death had a big impact on me. I asked myself, are all my efforts still not enough? Did I miss something? Am I an incompetent nurse? Or if I have been more aggressive in providing nursing care, maybe she will still be alive today? Fortunately, talking with my senior nurses about this helped a lot. I was lucky to have supportive colleagues as a patient’s death is indeed traumatic for new nurses like me. Through their advice, I realized that yes death is unavoidable but at least I should be proud that I became an important part of dying patients’ lives in the last moments they are alive.” – Nurse L. Gill, Minnesota
“It may sound insensitive but as an ER nurse, I learned how to be stiff in dealing with patient deaths. Our emergency room is always busy and we can have up to five patient deaths per shift. At first it was an emotional trauma to see grieving relatives over a patient you resuscitated with all your energy. Over time, I learned to practice empathic caring rather than sympathetic caring. I would give compassionate nursing care for my patients but not to the point that I would break down as their health deteriorates. By separating your personal feelings from your work attitude, it is easier to face the everyday challenges of being a nurse.” – Nurse T. McAdam, California
“I’m an oncology nurse and you would think that by now I’m used to patient deaths. But there were times that patients will get close to my heart and their deaths will leave me too exhausted to work. During these times, I will do yoga and meditate along with it. I also believe that after all the sufferings they experienced with their illnesses through their death they are now in a better place. A place where there is no more pain and misery.” – Nurse H. Scott, Ohio
We hope that we’ve given you some insight on how veteran nurses deal with death. If you still feel trapped in the grieving process, don’t hesitate to seek for professional help. Don’t let traumatic experiences at work end your nursing career. Remember all your patients who are able to go home after being treated under your care.