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One undeniable fact about being a healthcare worker is that you will occasionally face the death of a patient. How that death hits you will depend on how long you’ve been their caregiver and whether the death was expected.
It’s important to realize that any patient’s death will affect you, and that’s a good thing. As a healthcare professional, you never want to get to the point where you are unaffected by the death of another human being.
Unexpected Death vs. Expected Death
In a hospital setting, patient death might come surprisingly fast, with little time to prepare either your patient or yourself. When working in the emergency room, you might only know the patient’s name and diagnosis without ever having a chance to get to know the person. It could be the result of a horrible accident. It might be a child. Or the suicide of a young person.
Those deaths can be shocking and traumatic for the hospital staff. They are also shocking and traumatic for the patient’s family, who may complicate your own processing of the event. Part of your job is to help families cope in those moments of distress – and helping them will help you.
However, if you are a hospice nurse, you go into the relationship knowing that the patient is expected to die in a short time. Chances are that you will become close to the person and their family as well. Those expected deaths will be harder to process in some ways, but they also can be seen as the best possible end to a life that a person can have.
When you, your patient, and the patient’s family have worked through the end-of-life process together, there can even be a sense of relief. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t still have to do some processing on your own.
Self-Care While Grieving Your Patient’s Death
As caregivers, healthcare workers are accustomed to putting others first. In the aftermath of any death, there are tasks to be performed. Working through those can distract you and help you keep a professional face in that moment.
Eventually, you will have the need for and the opportunity to practice some self-care. It might be beneficial to recall the words of comfort that you offered to your patient’s family not so long ago. Here are some things you might have said to them.
- Death is a natural part of the life cycle. We all eventually die. It’s not a failure on your part when the patient’s time comes on your watch.
- Remind yourself of all the things you and the rest of the healthcare team did to treat, comfort, and support the patient. You did your best. Look for peace in that knowledge.
- Talk it out with someone. Can you turn to the healthcare team to discuss what happened? Does your employer offer grief counseling, or is it available in your community? Can you talk to a trusted pastor or even a friend or relative? It’s possible to get support without revealing any protected information.
- Keep to your healthy routine as much as possible. Continue to eat well and get proper sleep. Do not isolate yourself or look to drugs or alcohol to dull the pain of loss. It’s easy to slip into bad habits when dealing with grief. Be proactive in caring for yourself as much as you care for your patients.
- Give yourself grace. Some days will be hard. Allow yourself to feel the emotions as they come. Follow the advice you would give to someone else in the same situation.
- Take a break if you need to. Ask to be rotated to a different unit for a while if that’s going to help you get past your patient’s death. Take a day – or a week – off. Tend to your mental health in whatever way you need to do it.
- Don’t give up a career that you love over things you cannot control. Everyone dies. Your skills and presence can make that eventuality easier for your patients. Not everyone has that calling. It’s something that you can be proud of, even when you cannot control the outcome.
How to Honor Your Patient
You can acknowledge your patient by writing a note or leaving a brief message for the family expressing your condolences.
It may be appropriate to share a special memory of caring for the patient. Or you might relate some funny or profound story they told you. Letting the family know that a loved one was more than just a diagnosis to you can be healing for them and for you.
Attend the funeral or celebration of life if you are close to the patient and family. Or send flowers if that seems more appropriate. You can also volunteer or donate to a cause that is important to them.
Do something that brings you pleasure, even if it seems disrespectful at the time. One of the best ways to honor someone who has died is to continue to live.
There are many ways to honor people we have cared for. Choose what feels appropriate for you and the relationship you had with your patient.
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MLee Healthcare specializes in healthcare recruitment and staffing. Headquartered in Austin, Texas, they have been providing nationwide medical staffing services since 2003. See the website for regional office locations and information about applying for a career that you will love.
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