Written by Allison Lennartz, RN
“I’m so sorry,” I repeated multiple times as I prepared for a second IV attempt. She graciously smiled and said, “Please stop apologizing. I know you’re just trying to help me feel better!” Her response was so kind and helped me feel a little more at ease. I was grateful and relieved when the second attempt was successful. As I connected the tubing and proceeded to administer fluids, we talked about our shared interest in science, shows we were watching at the time, and what our husbands did for a living.
She was only a few years older than me and resembled a close friend of mine. She was easy to talk to and seemed to possess a good sense of humor. I could tell that I was growing attached to her already, even though I knew that cancer was the reason she kept returning to our clinic. But, I tried to be optimistic for her future and began to imagine that a friendship would form between us over time. I didn’t realize that time was something she didn’t have left.
A Grim Reality
They say you never forget the first patient you lose. But what about all the others who die while you are caring for them? Are they any less memorable? Most of my nursing experience is in family medicine, so it was not unusual to lose patients somewhat regularly. Many of the patients die from old age and eventually succumb to one of their chronic illnesses. Regardless, knowing they would die didn’t make it hurt less when the call from their spouse or child came. And it certainly didn’t make them easier to forget.
Every time I learned of a patient’s death, the familiar feeling of dismay and sorrow would set in. More than most other professions, dealing with death is part of nurses’ job and losing a patient can be one of nursing’s most difficult challenges. Here are a few ways you can attempt to cope with a patient loss.
Talk About It
Nurses are tough. We feel like we have to maintain an air of professionalism and strength at all times, especially in front of patients and their families. However, holding ourselves to a standard of stoicism that we wouldn’t hold anyone else to only works to our disadvantage. Refusing to talk about or process the tragedies and losses we witness isn’t the best way to handle any situation. Even if you feel like you can’t talk with friends or family about things you see at work, talking with a therapist provides an outlet to express your thoughts and feelings while coping with a loss. You shouldn’t feel ashamed for seeking this kind of help. Research indicates that this may be one of the most effective coping strategies for anyone who is grieving.
Movement may serve as a natural form of healing. Something as simple as a short hike or walk around the block can do wonders to lessen the negative emotions and physical ailments that come with grief. Exercise is free and beneficial in multiple ways. Not only will it give you some time to yourself to think and reflect on the patient (or patients) you’ve lost, but it will help to renew your body’s health by boosting blood flow, increasing endorphins, and improving your mood.
What better way to honor the life of a beloved patient than to remember them? Obviously patient privacy is never something to be flippant about, but you can tell stories or recall quotes from patients you’ve lost in such a way that prolongs their memory without violating HIPAA laws. There are several patients whose memories I keep alive by telling friends or family about funny anecdotes or moments I had with them without giving any personal details. I believe this is a way that you can pay respect to the person they were while maintaining your integrity as a professional. Memories are some of the most powerful and meaningful gifts that we can give one another, so feel free to share such a precious gift with others who will cherish it as well.
Grief Isn’t Predictable
Though I’ve personally benefited from these specific coping mechanisms, I know that others may handle their grief in different ways. There isn’t a formula for grief, nor is there a universal process anyone can go through to ensure that they cope with death in a healthy way. We live in a world where there are so many resources and forms of therapy that nurses can utilize. Some may prefer meditation, art therapy, or any technique that has a more individualized approach. Others might find counseling, support groups, or forms of therapy that are more collaborative to be more effective.
The vital takeaway is this: grief is a unique experience for each individual, but that doesn’t mean you have to deal with it alone. Explore the resources available to you and decide which ones are worth pursuing. Do what is necessary to take care of yourself and keep pressing onward, striving to bring the same love and care to your patients who are still living. I think that’s what all the ones we’ve lost would want us to do.
About the Author
Allison Lennartz, RN, works at an addictions rehabilitation facility near Austin, Texas. She enjoys spending time with her loved ones, soaking up the sun in her kayak, and reading for pleasure!
How nurses cope with patient death: A systematic review and qualitative meta-synthesis - PubMed (nih.gov)Nurses’ Experiences of Grief Following Patient
Death: A Qualitative Approach - Inaam A. Khalaf, Ghadeer Al-Dweik, Hana Abu-Snieneh, Laila Al-Daken, Ruba M. Musallam, Mohammad BaniYounis, Rula AL-Rimawi, Atef Hassan Khatib, Abla “Habeeb Allah”, Maysoun Hussein Atoum, Arwa Masadeh, 2018 (sagepub.com)
Finding Strength: Why Exercise Helps with Grief | HealthConnect (promedicahealthconnect.org)