Nursing is meaningful and rewarding, but also full of stress and heartbreak. Although facing issues related to death and dying comes with the territory, it doesn’t mean it’s easy. For some nurses, the death of a patient can be one of the most difficult moments of their career.
Whether this happens unexpectedly, or whether it is something you’ve been preparing for, the loss of a patient can leave you full of sorrow. As a nurse, it can be challenging to navigate mentally and emotionally, but you have to put your emotions aside for the other patients who need you.
Stages of grief
Patients die on a daily basis, so it makes sense for nurses to be taught how deal with death during their nursing curriculums. Although covering strategies for coping with death and dying would be ideal, many nursing programs focus only on ensuring students pass the NCLEX.
As a first-time nurse, watching a patient die can be extremely daunting. There will be a thousand different thoughts going through your mind, leaving you in an awkward position, not knowing what to do or how to act. How do you carry on with your day? How do you tell the family? How do you process what just happened?
Yes, you knew the day would come to witness a patient death, but you never knew how to deal with it. Grieving is a process, and there is no right or wrong way to experience the stages of grief. Some stages may last longer than others, and some you may not experience at all. Understand that your feelings are valid, and you should be kind to yourself throughout the process. Understanding the stages of grief will help you work through and accept it.
Denial and isolation
Grief not only affects us emotionally, but also physically, and it’s important to care for yourself in that way too. To avoid becoming lost or developing a hard exterior, it is vital to get adequate sleep, participate in regular exercise, and eat healthy. As human beings, we need to do our own inner work to stay connected to our quality of life. Make time for the things you love and start putting your own needs above others.
Talk to a grief counsellor
Your emotional wellbeing matters. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to your supervisor, reach out to state resources for grief services. There are many free associations that cater to the needs of nurses and healthcare professionals. However, asking your supervisor about grief counselling helps spread awareness about the need for hospitals to offer grief services.
Heal however you can
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with death. Every person and situation are different and requires a different approach to coping with death. Death is never easy, but as healthcare professionals, recognising that death is inevitable will help ease the burden a little.
Each death experienced will be unique – and some more painful than others but sharing stories and feelings with trusted colleagues and friends can help with the grief process. Take time to reflect and process the experience in your own way.
Strategies to cope with death
Realise death is inevitable
Give yourself time to grieve
Communicate with family members
Talk with your colleagues
Pray or meditate
Give yourself a break
Engage in a relaxing trip to reflect
Never look for a reason
Do not dwell in grief
Nurses are on the front lines of patient care - where experiencing death is part of their daily work. Nurses build relationships with their patients and families – holding their hands during illness and suffering. Committed to their patients and not just ‘doing a job’, nurses are viewed as the heart of healthcare.
It is not always an easy profession but surely rewarding in every way. From witnessing birth and new life, to shutting the eyes of the dead, nurses play a significant role in the lives of others. Finding coping strategies that work are an essential part of a nurse’s wellbeing and allows them to continue doing the important work of caring for patients with empathy and skill.