10 Tips for Dealing With Death (And Grief) as a Nurse

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The grief experiences of a nurse typically outweigh the typical grief experiences of a person who isn’t working in a high-mortality field. Grief and nursing are often inseparable, especially for those who experience death and dying daily. A nurse's grief is valid, yet it’s often overlooked by their employers, families, and even co-workers.

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Although grief is universal, each nurse’s experience with it is unique. Because many nurses form close and personal attachments to their patients, they may experience more significant amounts of suffering than other healthcare professionals, such as doctors, surgeons, and healthcare administrators. 

Also, nurses with a generalized fear of death may experience higher levels of grief than those who accept death as a normal part of the life cycle. Nurses do better with adapting to loss by honing in on their coping skills, reaching out to others for support, and learning to adjust to death and dying.

How Do Patient Deaths Typically Impact Nurses?

Grief is the normal emotional, physical, and psychological response to loss. A person grieves for many reasons. These reasons may include the loss of relative strangers in a professional or workplace setting. Daily exposure to death and loss significantly impacts nurses in ways that are different from ordinary loss experiences. 

Constantly seeing patients die or lose their autonomy can be profoundly impactful in the life of a nurse. In high-mortality healthcare settings, there are no rules for how long grief typically lasts, and grief can impact a nurse for the duration of their career. 

For many healthcare professionals, experiencing death, dying, and grief is all a part of the job. Understanding how nurses can endure the grief and stress that comes with this type of career is critical to maintaining a physical and emotional balance that allows them to do their job successfully.

Many nurses become disillusioned with their jobs because of the overwhelming grief they must cope with when seeing their patients die or lose their cognitive or physical functioning. For many nurses, this is one aspect of their job that's difficult to adjust to and deal with.

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How to Deal With Death or Grief as a Nurse: 10 Tips

The nursing community is known as the backbone of the healthcare industry. Nurses provide the brunt of the day-to-day healthcare duties of each patient in a hospital or other healthcare setting. They’re often more in tune with the patient’s overall needs than the doctors assigned to them.

Even so, nurses aren’t immune from experiencing severe grief reactions resulting from the daily overwhelm of caring for their patients and dealing with situations where their patients die. Some ways in which nurses experience work-related grief are:

  • Lasting feelings of overwhelming sadness and guilt
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Decline in morale and in the desire to continue working in their field (burnout)

The following tips aim at helping nurses learn to cope with their grief as they care for and provide support services to their patients.

1. Accept your feelings

Many nurses go into their field thinking that one of the hardest things to deal with will be seeing their patients die. However, what often turns out to be even more challenging is seeing families mourn their losses after the patient’s death. 

When dealing with a patient's death and the family's grief, tell yourself that it's OK for you to feel sad over the loss of the patient you cared for, too. Grief and empathy are both human responses to dealing with loss. 

2. Don’t blame yourself

When dealing with patient care, one of the most challenging issues is when you can’t save a patient's life. It’s easy to fall into blaming yourself for everything that went wrong. You may start questioning what you could've done better, where you failed as a nurse, and how you could've been a better source of comfort and support for the grieving family.

Try to take yourself out of the mindset of being the one responsible for the outcome. Sometimes there's nothing that medical science could do to save a person's life, and no matter what anyone does, the result remains the same. 

3. Take part in workgroup meetings

When the opportunity arises to sit and talk with your co-workers and fellow healthcare providers, take the opportunity to openly discuss what went wrong and how you handled the patient's care.

Don't go home and beat yourself up over what aspect of your caregiving failed and what could've been better. Talk to your co-workers who were actively involved in the patient's care in question so that you can learn from each other.

Take this as an educational opportunity to further your skills for the next patient. There's no sense in playing out the scenario over and over in your head without getting constructive feedback from other professionals in your field who were actively involved in the management of your patient's care.

4. Read and learn about grief

Your grief experiences as a nurse and medical provider come with their own unique set of challenges. The grief that follows the death of each patient may have a cumulative effect on you over time. When your grief goes unacknowledged, each experience gets layered one on top of another.

In time, your grief impacts you in ways that may affect many other aspects of your life both at home and at work. Cumulative grief then turns into complicated grief that may be more challenging to process later on. Reading books about grief may help you understand the grieving process you're going through and show you ways to deal with grief safely and effectively.

5. Enhance your coping skills

There's no timeline for grief or the grieving process. You can expect to grieve each loss for several days or weeks, depending on your relationship with a particular patient. Sometimes, the impact of their loss will follow you for much longer. Each patient's death that results in solid grief reactions provides an opportunity for emotional and professional growth.

We measure professional growth in one way by handling grief as it occurs without breaking down in front of the patient or their families. Professional work development also means learning that death and loss are a part of a nurse's chosen profession and accepting it as such. Personal growth follows an increase in:

  • Tolerance
  • Compassion
  • Forgiveness
  • Hope

6. Get the support you need

Getting the support you need at work may prove difficult in a highly competitive environment. Your superiors and co-workers that expect you to carry on with your nursing duties may not be so keen on you breaking down and showing emotion during inopportune times. You may feel that you're not supported or that you can't open up to express your feelings and emotions. 

Consider seeking outside help and support from those in your immediate circle or your community. In time, you'll learn to balance professional distance and personal attachment. These responses to loss are not automatic and will take time and support for you to achieve.

7. Learn to adjust to loss

The overwhelming stress and burnout that comes with your job duties and responsibilities may prove challenging to contend with. Learning to adjust to loss can include taking time away from work-related grief and sadness and doing something for yourself to help you become better prepared for times of loss. Consider taking part in work-sponsored lectures and grief retreats. You can also try journaling and blogging as a way to release grief-related emotions.

8. Find ways to relieve stress

Grief is a form of stress that results from experiencing loss. In a healthcare setting, compassion fatigue also leads to the accumulation of grief. The more death and loss you directly deal with at work, the more you're prone to experience grief burnout, especially if you're an empathetic person.

Nurses who are highly compassionate carry home with them the stress of their grief. It's essential to find ways to release this stress by practicing some self-care. Consider going to the gym, meditating, or taking part in physical activity outside of work each day.

9. Seek counseling or therapy

Unacknowledged or disenfranchised grief tends to have a long-term effect on the personal lives of many healthcare workers, which may lead to complicated grief. The impacts of suffering can lead to long-term functional impairment and may manifest in anxiety disorders and major depression. 

Trying grief counseling may help you learn how to assess your grief and introduce you to coping skills that’ll help you work through your thoughts and feelings. If your healthcare facility where you work provides access to its employees to their chaplaincy services, you can try getting guidance there, too.

10. Consider your attitude

Your attitude toward death has a strong impact on how grief affects you at work. Whether you assess death and dying as a threat or you see it as a natural part of the life cycle will determine how successfully you can manage your grief.

Your overall ability to successfully address your grief-related stress is linked to how you view your role as a healthcare provider, administrator of healthcare processes, and your responsibility for the overall wellbeing of each patient you care for. A proper attitude to have is one where you understand that there’s a specific role you play in the patient’s overall care and that you cannot control what comes next for the patient outside of your roles and responsibilities. 

Managing Grief-Related Stress in Healthcare

Many nurses deal with an overwhelming amount of death and loss in their everyday work lives. Grief-management skills are an essential part of a nurse’s personal growth at work. Most nurses are naturally empathetic and carry the weight of loss with them. Learning to let go of grief-related stress takes time, patience, and practice.

Dealing with loss becomes easier when you shift your perspective, take up self-care practices, and give yourself permission to grieve.

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