How to Cope With the Death of a Patient or Resident

By Seasons | March 08, 2021

healthcare worker sitting at table looking sadLosing a patient or resident is hard.

Even if you’ve previously experienced the loss of a longtime resident or patient, it can be hard to handle. When Mrs. Williams isn’t sitting in her favorite sunny corner that afternoon when you walk by, you can experience significant grief. Building unique bonds with the patients and community members we serve is one of the most rewarding parts of a career in healthcare. When you’ve been privileged to care for or partner with a particular individual over a longer period of time, or if you’ve built a special bond with someone, the effects of their death can be especially poignant.  

Death Can be Hard to Process  

When death is something you encounter in the workplace, it can be uniquely hard to process. You may encounter scenarios such as having little warning about a resident death until you show up to your shift to be met with the news: “Mrs. Williams died last night.” You didn’t get to say goodbye, and her daughter has already shared her thanks, which you get second-hand, and left for the last time. Or perhaps you were there during the final moments, got to say goodbye, and then immediately had to turn to the logistics of making calls and arrangements and filing paperwork. Either way, the death of someone who you’ve cared for in a professional setting can be uniquely stressful and it can be hard to work through your feelings.    

To learn coping strategies, watch our on-demand CE/CME course 

“Resiliency and Self-Care for the Healthcare Worker” 

Look Inward First 

Acknowledging your feelings is always a good first step, but it’s often easier said than done. If you’re busy and distracted, it can be easy to push difficult feelings to the side and ignore them, but in the long run, this will result in more stress for you. You may experience irritability, restlessness, and anger if you don’t take the time to acknowledge your feelings. Checking in with yourself about your grief is often painful but it’s worth it.  

Validating your response is also key. You might find yourself thinking, “Oh I shouldn’t be sad about this, I knew Mrs. Williams was going to die soon.” However,  it’s important to know that there is no logical timeline for grief, and there is no need to compare your feelings to someone else’s or to feel that you don’t have the “right” to grieve.  

When You’re Ready, Consider These Steps 

  • Share: When you’re ready, take some time to share your favorite stories and memories with your colleagues. This can be a healing practice, and you’ll often learn something new!  
  • Celebrate legacy: If you work for a facility or nursing home, do they hold memorial services to honor the deaths of patients and residents? These services can be a wonderful way to honor the memories of individuals you have cared for. You can always reach out to us to see what community memorial services we have coming up  
  • Utilize grief resources: Writing or meditating about your feelings and loss can be therapeutic, and there are many resources that can walk you through this process with prompts. 
  • Join a bereavement group or speak with a bereavement counselor: Bereavement support isn’t just for family members of the deceased. If you’re experiencing intense or compounded grief, we can put you in touch with one of our bereavement counselors.   

Whatever ways you choose to grieve, the process and the timeline look different for each situation. Even for those who experience death regularly through their jobs, grief can still sneak up and surprise you. It’s important to recognize that the grieving process is as unique as the patients and families that we serve and come to care for.  

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