Nurses Dealing With Death: What it Means to be a Nurse

NursingOctober 23, 2013


In nursing school, you're taught medical techniques and medications to take care for patients, often emotional and social support skills are glossed over. While you may rejoice in working with newborns at the beginning of life, death is also an important reality in your nursing career. Nurses dealing with death face complex emotions from everyone involved: the patient, the patient's family, and your own emotions.

Special Needs of the Dying Patient

Sometimes death is unexpected, such as a trauma or disaster, but in hospice care, the patient usually knows they're facing the end of their life. This presents unique challenges to you as their nurse, and often your role becomes as much about emotional support as easing physical symptoms. Patients may express to you their fears about dying, concerns about resolving family conflicts and fears of dying in pain or alone.

There are not textbook answers to these questions, therefore exploring your own feelings about death becomes an important part of preparing for your role as a caregiver for the dying. Patients and family members may see you as somewhat of an expert in death and dying and may even ask personal questions about your own beliefs and faith.

Special Needs of Family Members

Aside from a few lectures on cultural and social factors in nursing care, you may not have thought about your role as a caregiver for the family of a dying patient. But an integral part of a patient finding peace of mind is the family finding peace of mind, and it's not that uncommon for the family to be coping far worse than the terminally ill person.

Grief manifests in many forms. Family reactions can be very unpredictable and can even be directed at you or other family members. Try not to take it personally, but remain calm and supportive. Encourage families to vent their feelings of anger, sadness or frustration.

Taking Care of Yourself

People may ask you how you deal with so much death. While it's stressful, knowing you helped people through such a difficult time can be very rewarding. It can also serve as a powerful reminder not take your own life for granted and how important it is to make the most of every moment.

As nurses dealing with death, the stress gets overwhelming at times for even the most experienced nurse. It can dredge up feelings related to the death of your own loved ones, sometimes unexpectedly. As many hospice nurses tell families and caregivers themselves, you can't take care of someone else unless you take care of yourself. As a nurse, self care is essential.  You must learn to take your own advice and find ways to rejuvenate your spirit and live a full personal life. Only then can you give the dying and their loved ones the support and peace they need to make it through this final transition.

Photo Source: Flickr