How to deal with the death of a patient

In the two years that I have been training as a nurse I have encountered death several times across three of my four placements. Towards the end of my last placement with the district nursing team, I was talking to a family member who was caring for their mother at the end of life who complimented me on how I cared for her and remarked that they wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing at my age. I don’t think that experiencing the death of a patient gets easier at any age, but I do think that there are strategies that you can develop to improve your emotional resilience. I believe that the first experience with death is the hardest as until you have experienced it for yourself, you have no idea what to expect. Over time you will come to know what to expect, but that doesn’t mean that is gets any easier. It is impossible to simply ‘switch off’ your emotions as we are still human and, hopefully as we are in a nursing role, caring individuals.

I would like to share some coping strategies that I have developed in the hope that they may help you when you inevitably encounter death in your career.

  1. Use the experience as a learning curve. Reflect on what went well and what you would do differently and keep this in mind when you care for your next patient. It is useful to keep in mind though that what was comforting for one patient and their family may not be appropriate for another so adapt your practice accordingly.
  2. Talk about it. Talk to your family and your support network. Personally, I talk about the situation with my parents, my boyfriend and my fellow student nurses. My Dad, who is a retired doctor, has often been in similar situations so we discuss the medical side such as the pathology and medications. I share how I am feeling with Liam and my uni friends. My uni friends are a great support as we are all going through the same thing so we can share our scenarios and empathise with each other. You may also find it useful to talk to the other members of staff who were involved in the patient’s care. After I witnessed and assisted with a particularly traumatic death, I went to each doctor, nurse, anaesthetist and any other member of staff I could find and discussed their role and understanding of the situation. As a student, we do not always get this opportunity so if you do get the chance, debrief with the team.
  3. If you need to take a break to reflect, feel like you need to cry or want to talk to another member of staff do it. Don’t try to hold in your emotions or feelings. It is important to grieve the patient you lost. The role we have with patients is unique. We build relationships with patients and their families and not many people experience caring for a dying person. The team you are working with will be understanding and support you throughout the process.
  4. Actively practice self-care. Whether that be taking a walk, having a bubbly bath or treating yourself to something. This is not only to help yourself and give yourself time to reflect and relax, but to also benefit your patients as you will return to placement refreshed and ready to face new challenges.
  5. Ask to participate in the care after death. I find this process comforting as it is the last thing that you can do for that patient and it is reassuring to see the patient looking so peaceful.

Personally, I find this area of nursing to be one of the most valuable roles that we do. It is an honour and a privilege to be able to care for someone at the end of their life and support a family throughout the process. You will build a close and special relationship with the patient, and particularly the family, who will value your support throughout this difficult time.

I hope that you may find these strategies useful and continue to care for your own wellbeing.


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