Death is a common occurrence in a hospital setting and is something nurses must deal with daily. As professional caregivers, you may become emotionally invested in your patient’s well-being. This holds, especially in roles where you act as the guardian, for instance, in neonatal or palliative care, where emotional bonds can develop between nurses and their patients.
After all, nursing is a profession defined by empathy and compassion, and many derive a sense of fulfillment and joy from developing emotional bonds with patients. However, once the relationship ends, which is often in death due to the nature of the job, it can take a toll on your emotional well-being. Hence, it is important to draw healthy boundaries and find strong coping mechanisms that work for you.
How can nurses effectively deal with grief?
Even though death is inevitable and a natural part of the medical profession – coping with it isn’t as easy as it might seem. Every nurse has a different way of dealing with loss, but some might feel overwhelmed and find it hard to come to terms with it. Furthermore, many tend to suppress their grief and distress, which can accumulate over time and manifest in complex forms such as compassion fatigue, burnout, depression, and physical and emotional exhaustion.
Additionally, there used to be a lack of focus on coping with death and loss in nursing curriculums. Thankfully with time, many programs have introduced an evidence-based teaching approach linked with clinical practice, which focuses on psychological, economic, and cultural influences on health care. You can now find many online nurse practitioner programs which consider it essential to teach nurses how to draw healthy boundaries with patients and effectively cope with loss.
Eight ways nurses can cope with death and loss
Many nurses rarely take the time to grieve one patient’s loss before moving on to care for another. Partly, this is because many prioritize their patient’s well-being over their own, leading to burnout. Furthermore, many nursing programs teach you to work through loss and grief, creating unhealthy work dynamics.
The consequences of working with grief are terrible – both for nurses and their patients. To help you effectively navigate grief and come to terms with death or loss, we have compiled a list of eight approaches you can consider.
- Prioritize your well-being
Everyone grieves differently, and it’s an entirely normal response to loss. Allow yourself time to grieve so you can move on, as grief can manifest itself in physical forms such as exhaustion. Maintain a healthy diet, and work out regularly. Without working on regulating emotions, you can either become enmeshed in the experience or build walls around yourself to protect yourself emotionally.
- Draw healthy boundaries
Nurses tend to immerse themselves in caring for their patients and forget to draw healthy boundaries, which can hurt them in the long run. Healthy boundaries allow you to give your all while caring for your patients without over-identifying their problems and becoming excessively emotionally involved – at least not more than what your job requires.
- Practice emotional resilience
Emotional resilience will allow you to care for your mental and physical well-being and derive fulfillment from your profession while delivering an excellent patient care experience and offering compassionate care without crossing boundaries. Once you acknowledge and face your emotions and feelings towards death without suppressing them, you are on your way to developing healthier coping mechanisms.
When nurses take time to care for themselves, they are better able to care for patients and their families and are less likely to suffer from the adverse effects of grieving. Effective self-care for nurses is an ever-evolving endeavor vital in both personal and professional settings.
- Share your feelings with a grief counselor
Caring for your emotional well-being is just as important as your physical well-being, especially when dealing with loss. Most hospitals offer grief counseling services, but those are only accessible to a patient’s loved ones and not to the hospital staff. If you find yourself overwhelmed with grief, asking your supervisor to get grief counseling is only fitting. Plus, it’ll also help raise awareness about this issue, which often goes unnoticed.
Moreover, you can contact your state’s nursing association to learn about potential assistance resources available to you.
- Give yourself time to process death
Death is a natural and normal aspect of living. Witnessing death regularly and assisting patients and their families through the natural dying process may make it easier for terminal or palliative care nurses to deal with death as a natural part of life and avoid over-identifying with the experience.
However, many nurses don’t get to face death as much as those in other specializations, and when they see patients in agony, trauma, or battling for their life, it inevitably leaves a shadow in their minds. Confiding in other nurses is often the best way you can approach moral distress and grieve. It’s because they resonate with what you feel and will be able to guide you better.
- Know that grieving is normal
Grieving is natural, and you don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying something after witnessing the death of a patient. The end-of-life time you spend with your patient shouldn’t be all sad and solemn. Instead, lighten up with mood with some humor to give them a happy end. It’s essential to allow yourself to laugh at silly things, and sharing smiles with your colleagues can help ease the process. Plus, humor is also effective for relieving stress. Death is brutal, but it also teaches valuable lessons, such as staying strong in the face of pain.
- Heal at your own pace
Every death and its situation are different, so there’s no universal approach for coping with grief, and everyone heals at their own pace. It’s essential to take time to process and comprehend the experience on your terms. Specific scenarios may be considerably more difficult or can cause greater anguish, such as a suicide or sudden death.
Research reveals that health care personnel who provide terminal care for patients find significance and fulfillment in their professional career, despite how difficult it may be to deal with death. Sharing experiences and concerns with trustworthy colleagues or friends might assist with the grieving process.
- Practice adaptive coping
Adaptive coping refers to confiding in other nurses about your thoughts and experiences and looking up to them as sources of comfort, support, and motivation. Adaptive coping allows you to cope while delivering excellent care to your other patients. In contrast to traditional coping methods, which tend to amplify anxiety, adaptive coping techniques serve to alleviate it.
Stress can be exacerbated by suppressing your emotions and engaging in maladaptive behaviors. Withholding one’s emotions can become difficult for a nurse even when necessary due to the circumstances. A person’s grief may be intensified if they continue suppressing their emotion. Not reflecting on your feelings can make you hesitant to approach other patients, have difficulties maintaining personal relationships, or experience insomnia and a loss of appetite.
Every nurse has a way of coping with loss or death. Some nurses find solace in tending to the needs of a deceased patient’s body after death. Others said that talking to patients and loved ones about their feelings helped them deal with their own emotions. Some nurses find consolation in that they’ve done all they can to help the patient and ensure they’re as comfortable as possible throughout their treatment as it nears its conclusion.
You must find a healthy method to grieve over the loss of a patient so that you may move on in your professional life and continue to give quality treatment to other patients. Consider the above strategies to help ease the grieving process.