Though undeniably rewarding and purposeful, a nurse’s job is also full of stressors and sometimes heartbreak. One of the most difficult things you can experience as a nurse is the death of a patient you’ve been caring for. Whether unexpected or something you have been preparing for, the loss can still be incredibly painful. As a nurse, it can be a challenging moment to navigate mentally and emotionally, but know that you are not alone in your journey.
Experiencing the Stages of Grief
Created by author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, the five stages of grief are:
- Denial and isolation
While not everyone will experience these exact five stages or grief (nor will they necessarily be in this order), this is a common guideline to follow when it comes to understanding your emotions following a loss.
However, you should keep in mind that 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; just understand that your feelings are valid and you should be kind to yourself throughout.
Communicating with Family Members and Your Nursing Team
When you’re grieving, one of your instincts may be to isolate yourself or contain your thoughts and emotions in order to appear stoic, but communication is key to healing. Leaning on loved ones for emotional support can help tremendously during this time, however difficult it may seem. Whether you simply need a hug or someone to cook your dinner when you don’t have the energy (self-care is pivotal during this time), letting those close to you know what you need and when you need it can be incredibly comforting.
Another major source of support throughout grief and bereavement of the death of a patient is your nursing team. After all, no one understands what you’re going through better than those in your line of work. These people cannot only understand you in a unique way, but they can also be the ones to help you if you need time off from work to properly deal with, and heal from, a patient death.
Being Comfortable with Death and Dying
Yes, death is a natural part of life, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult to cope with when it happens to someone you’ve cared for. Understanding death—and being comfortable with the process of death and dying—will inevitably vary from person to person. Whether it’s your religious background and upbringing, or your own outlook on life, there’s no right or wrong way to interpret your own feelings on death.
If you find yourself struggling with coming to terms with death and dying, there are countless books that may help you have a better understanding from a different perspective (such as Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Katy Butler and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande). You can also speak to someone face-to-face, whether it’s a therapist or a leader in your religious community, who may be able to give you not only comfort and compassion, but practical ways to look at death and dying.
Learning how to cope with a patient’s death may feel impossible sometimes, but there are tips, tools, and strategies that you can apply to help guide you through the process. Again, just like with grief, there is no right or wrong way to cope. But there are certain things you can do that may make the process a little easier on yourself during an already difficult time.
To cope with a death you can, and should, seek out care and support from those around you, including joining a support group. Take care of yourself, whether that’s going for a walk around the block or keeping a journal to express all your thoughts and feelings. Find a routine that works for you during this time. Most importantly, grant yourself the time to cope and heal. Be kind to yourself; you deserve it.
Listen to our Healing on the Home Front podcast episode to learn more about ways to cope when dealing with patient death.