EP 88: Nurses Coping with the Death of Their Patients

Nurses Coping with the Death of Their Patients

Nurses coping with the death of their patients must be normalized within the work setting. After all, nurses are human beings with emotions. But the question is, how do you define death? How comfortable do you feel with death? 

I never imagined being the last person on someone’s chest, keeping them alive before they call the code. Walking into your shift as a nurse, you never know what to expect. You receive your assignment at 0700/1900 and have an outline of your night. At around 2200, you hear the central monitor room alarming. Your heart drops. Is that your patient? As you sprint to your room, the charge nurse begins to scream your name. Your fellow nurse has already started chest compressions on your patient as you walk in to help during the code blue. 

Everyone watches the clock during the code every 2 minutes to administer rounds of epinephrine, compressions, ventilation, and a defibrillator on standby. How was your first code? Do those scenes speak to you? We all know that feeling when the team calls the code. That silence, respect for everyone in the room, a moment in silence. 

Death of a patient: The Family Dynamic 

No book in nursing school can prepare you for the reality of dealing with death. Death is a natural part of life, but that doesn’t make it any easier. One of the most stressful and emotional parts of having patients pass away on you is being there for the family. 

This is a part of nursing where we don’t receive enough education. We practice treatment, knowing how to take care of patients. I know my ACLS. I can save your life. But when we can’t save them, this is where dealing with family comes in. 

My #1 piece of advice for dealing with families dealing with grief.

Silence. 

I tend to be talking, so I have always tended to say something during a sad situation at work. I learned that no matter what you tell someone, you can’t do or say anything to help them. Grief is a solo journey. No matter how many people tell you they are there for you, it is a lonely walk.

The Blame Game

How do you respond when things go wrong? As nurses, we have those moments reflecting, thinking, what could I have done differently? Second-guessing ourselves after we have experienced a harmful situation is a natural process. 

Please do not try to blame yourself and try to find things with what you did when someone codes on you. This is especially important for a new nurse. Are there times when a situation could have been handled better? Yes, of course. This is where experienced nurses can share their knowledge and guide you on what to do the next time you are faced with that exact scenario.

How to Deal with the Death of a Patient

Nurses coping with the death of a patient must practice self-care.

  • Grief affects the body mentally and physically. It’s essential to care for yourself physically as well. Make sure to get enough sleep, exercise, and eat a healthy diet. 
  • “If we don’t do our inner work and stay connected to our quality of life, we can either over-identify with the dying and become lost in that experience or develop armor for protection”.

Know it’s OK to experience joy.

  • We must allow ourselves to experience humor and joy in the face of the dying process. “Any hospice nurse will tell you there’s often an amazing amount of gratitude and inspiration at the end of a patient’s life”. Humor also helps to relieve stress in unique ways. Death is part of the human process.

Remember, it happens.

  • You’re likely to begin scrutinizing yourself after a patient’s death. You’ll wonder what you could have done differently, and you may feel guilty for something like an instance when you were impatient or distracted. Remember, no one is perfect, and death happens to even the most attentive and compassionate nurses. There may be things you can learn to be a better nurse, but blaming yourself is never helpful.

Remember, you’re making a difference.

  • Death is neither a failure nor the end of the patient’s care. Part of being a nurse is not just serving patients but their families. Some of the most meaningful moments in a nurse’s career are working with the patient’s family. Whatever you feel after a patient’s death, the family will feel much more.
  • Nurses are often the first people the family encounters after the loss. How you treat and talk to them is an extension of the care you provide to your patient. You can make a tremendous difference in their lives, which will help them cope with loss—and it will help you too.

It’s good to talk, remember that.

  • One of the greatest assets a nurse has is other nurses. Death and loss are so prevalent in the healthcare field you’re often surrounded by coworkers and colleagues who have experienced similar situations. Whatever you’re feeling, your coworkers have felt it too, and processing your emotions out loud with another empathic person does help.
  • Colleagues can relate similar stories or offer advice for coping mechanisms and rituals they found compelling, and they can help you figure out how to talk to family members who have just lost their loved ones.

Let’s normalize nurses coping with the death of their patients here; click on for the full video 👇👇👇

TIMESTAMPS:

00:00 – Intro
00:15 – Welcome to the show
01:30 – Death in the ICU
03:50 – Dealing with the Patient
08:00 – Dealing with the Family
10:05 – Post mortem care
14:18 – Gift of Hope
16:50 – Don’t play the Blame Game
19:20 – Coping with the death of a patient
21:52 – How to deal with death
24:02 – When a patient passes away
32:47 – Closing the show

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