Patients Will Die — Coping With Death as a Health Care Professional

Patients Will Die — Coping With Death as a Health Care Professional

As a health care professional, coming face-to-face with the death of a patient is often an inevitable fate. Sometimes you can see it coming as their health declines. At other times, a seemingly healthy patient may suddenly succumb to an illness, and death comes as a complete shock.

Coping with death is never easy, no matter how prepared you might be. By working in health care, you have to be in touch with your emotions in order to process loss, while also needing to remain composed and professional to care for the patients’ family members and your other patients. 

Whether you’ve faced patient death multiple times already in your career or the anxiety of potentially losing a patient is a first for you, it’s important to appropriately process and cope. Here are ways you can help support yourself and others through such a difficult time.

Effects of Death on a Health Care Professional

When it comes to patient deaths, our first consideration is usually for the loved ones of the individual who has passed — and rightfully so. 

However, the impact also extends to those who have provided care for the patient. A patient’s death can negatively impact your mental and physical well-being if the grief isn’t properly handled. The stress of a patient’s death can cause negative physical reactions that can impact how you feel and function.

On the outside, it may seem like some health care professionals are better equipped to deal with death than others. Some people may even believe that doctors and nurses who regularly care for dying patients will get used to encountering death. 

That’s a dangerous misconception. About 86.4% of physicians reported feeling distressed after a patient’s death, with 51.8% reporting that it affects them at least moderately and 4.5% saying that it affects them to an extreme level.

One effect of dealing with multiple patient deaths over time is compassion fatigue. This happens when a health care worker’s emotional energy diminishes over time. This is similar to PTSD and makes it more difficult for medical professionals to emotionally invest in their work and do their jobs.

It also isn’t just the outcome of death that affects the confidence and working ability of medical professionals. A majority of doctors and nurses reported that giving a patient a terminal diagnosis affects their confidence, professionalism, and perception of trust with a patient. 

This stresses the importance for medical professionals to properly acknowledge and tend to their grief in order to avoid burnout and continue healthily growing in their careers.

7 Methods to Help You Cope With Patient Death

Different patient deaths and diagnoses will affect doctors, nurses, and administrators at different points in their careers. A special connection with a patient or an unforeseen complication may make a particular death hit someone harder. 

Whatever the circumstance, here are some ways to cope with the death of a patient.

1. Take Care of Your Needs

Every patient death is unique and will affect you differently. There’s no one right way to take care of your needs and grieve. 

When you need time to yourself, take it. Acknowledge the death, tend to your grief, seek support, and practice self-care. Make sure you’re taking care of the basics, like eating, sleeping, and exercising regularly to keep yourself in good physical and mental shape.

2. Talk With Your Peers

Chances are a patient’s death isn’t just affecting you. Talk about what you’re feeling with the other doctors and nurses who were taking care of the patient and ask how they’re holding up.

More likely than not, they can probably relate to how you’re feeling. They could also offer a new perspective on the situation and their personal coping methods. There’s strength in numbers, and that strength lies most in talking to those who can empathize and understand.

3. Seek Counseling

Some deaths will linger in your mind longer than others. To help you get through this process, reach out to a professional. 

If you have a therapist or counselor, talk through the death with them to help process your feelings. If not, ask your hospital administrators if there is grief counseling available to staff. 

Typically, though, bereavement counseling is only available for patients’ families. If that’s the case, talk to your supervisors to spread awareness of the importance of offering grief counseling to staff.

4. Use Your Support System

Don’t be afraid to take your grief outside of the medical environment. With keeping patient privacy laws in mind, talk with your friends, family, and other loved ones to help process the loss. 

Even though they may not be able to understand what you’re going through or the patient’s impact on your life, just having them know how you’re feeling and being open about it helps the healing process. 

A common misconception is that people don’t want to hear about your grief or what’s bothering you. Your loved ones are there to support you and will want to listen to you and help you in any way they can.

5. Let Go of Guilt

One of the main reasons a doctor or nurse might experience so much grief is that they may feel responsible for the death, and that can cause them to feel guilty. It isn’t uncommon for a health care professional to think that, because they were the ones taking care of a patient, they played some part in the death. 

If you find yourself with feelings of guilt after a patient dies, while it might feel impossible, try to release that guilt, reminding yourself you did everything in your power to help your patient.

6. Talk to Their Families

Patients’ families will also experience intense grief. As a health care professional, it’s important to also support your patients’ loved ones, and doing so might help you in your own journey. 

This will give you a sense of purpose and connection that alleviates the pain and reminds you how important your job is — beyond simply taking vitals and giving medications. 

If it seems too personal or forward to speak with a patient’s family directly, you can always send them a private note to tell them about the impact their loved one had on you.

7. Attend the Patient’s Funeral

Depending on your relationship with the patient and their family, you might find solace in attending the patient’s funeral. Attending this ceremony may give you a sense of closure, and under most circumstances, the family will appreciate your presence.

Grief is a complex process, and it’s unfortunately common within the medical field. Take the time to learn now how to best process and help others process their grief, so you can be prepared when the often inevitable happens. 

Michelle Paul

Michelle Paul is an RN Content Specialist at Clipboard Health. She has worked with a variety of patient demographics, ranging from young adults in foreign countries, to elderly residents in skilled nursing facilities, to healthy blood donors in her community. Her experience in content creation gives her a unique perspective on communication within the healthcare field.

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