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How to Cope With Patient Death

Throughout your nursing career, there will come times when you experience the death of a patient.

For those working in hospice, long-term care, or ICU units, this is almost for certain.

While it is an expected part of the job, that expectation doesn’t make coping with the death of a person in your care any easier.

Everybody has different coping mechanisms, and some are unbothered by things that deeply trouble others.

Regardless of expectation, a patient's death can be one of the more challenging aspects of a nurse’s job.

Even when death becomes a regular part of the job, it can still be troublesome, especially if not trained in coping mechanisms for dealing with tough situations and emotional strain.

In the world of nursing, self-care is equally as important as patient care.

Maintaining emotional wellbeing is an essential aspect of healthy living.

For professionals in stressful or demanding careers, like nursing, it is crucial to allow yourself the time to actively work on your own wellness.

An element of this is to learn and incorporate tactics to cope with death.

Hospice nurse Camille Adair spent years treating patients at the end of their life, consequently dealing with death on a regular basis.

She created a documentary about end-of-life experiences and a program to help healthcare workers deal with death and dying.

The following are some tips and suggestions as shared by Adair.

Self-care

Grief is emotional, but it also has a physical effect on the body.

For this reason, it’s necessary to take care of your physical health as well as your emotional health.

This includes ensuring you get enough sleep each night, exercising regularly, and practicing healthy eating habits.

The risks of not maintaining proper physical health can have emotional repercussions, including a tendency to build up emotional armor or to become lost in the experiences of those who are dying.

Hold on to your personal story

When caring for the dying, a nurse hears a lot of stories about people’s lives.

At times, this can cause nurses to become disconnected from their own lives or enwrapped in the stories and lives of their patients.

One method of coping with this issue is to carry a keepsake that represents your own life and personal matters.

Upon entering a room, you can leave the keepsake by the entrance, thus symbolically leaving your personal matters behind to be wholly present in the moment.

In a way, you are compartmentalizing your life by separating personal from professional and allow you to give your full attention to patient care.

Carrying a token or keepsake can also help remind you that your patient’s problems are not your personal problems.

Counselling

Emotional self-care is equally as important as physical self-care.

If you notice yourself becoming overwhelmed, suffering from emotional distress due to death and dying, it can help talk to a grief counselor.

Ask your supervisor if counseling is available.

There’s no shame in admitting that you need help dealing with an issue.

Normalizing the need to talk about your problems and concerns can raise awareness of the need for counselling in the workplace.

If you’re not comfortable with workplace counseling, seeing a therapist outside of work can help you navigate troublesome issues and will lead to finding a sense of balance and wellbeing.

Acknowledge Death

For hospice nurses, whose work involves caring for end-of-life patients, death is a normal part of work.

Death and dying become easier to deal with through constant exposure.

The job involves guiding patients and families through the process of dying.

At times, they can help patients with transformative moments that bring about a greater understanding of death.

For nurses in other disciplines, there isn’t this close connection with the end-of-life process.

They see only the pain and suffering or the struggle for life.

They aren’t necessarily there for the entire journey and thus have a different relationship with death.

Talking to a hospice nurse about these issues, and hearing their perspective, can help give nurses a better understanding and help with processing their own emotions around death.

For nurses who treat a patient before they are moved to an end-of-life centre, hearing stories from hospice nurses can help the nurse with the healing process, especially if they developed a bond with the patient while they were in their care.

Experience Joy

The presence of grief does not mean the exclusion of joy or humor.

On the contrary, it is important to allow room for moments of joy in the face of death.

Often, a patient experiences moments of gratitude during the dying process.

Although there is sadness for the end of life, there is also joy in remembering the life that was lived.

Humor can be an effective tool for healing and processing difficult emotions and can also help to relieve stress.

Heal in Your Own way

The way one person deals with dying, death, and grief may not work for other people.

The healing process is deeply personal, and there is no straightforward solution that works for everyone.

Because of this, it may require practicing different approaches before you find a coping method that works for you.

It’s important to take the time to reflect and process as you determine methods that best work to deal with your grief.

Adding to the difficulty of finding methods to cope is the variety of end-of-life situations you may face and the requirements for different approaches to each situation.

The silver lining around this cloud of grief is that studies have found that nurses who deal with dying patients tend to gain a sense of meaning from their work.

Dealing with death is part of the nursing profession.

And so is saving lives.

Whether it’s by providing emergency CPR or by monitoring and administering life support systems, there are plenty of ways that nurses save lives every day.

Many of these methods require certification. ProMed offers online courses for a range of certifications.

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