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image of woman's torso with stethoscope around neck (presuambaly a nurse) next to a bedside holding a frail, wrinkled hand atop a red blanket.

Witnessing Death as a Nurse and Supporting the Family

by Miranda

Death is an inevitable part of a nurse’s career. It occurs not only in hospice care settings where death is an expectation but in many other healthcare settings as well. The circumstances surrounding a patient’s death, the level of experience of the nurse, and their coping strategies are all factors that can affect a nurse’s emotions in profound ways. 

Patient Death Affects Nurses

A study published in 2021 surveyed 160 nurses across four hospital units—emergency department, internal medicine, surgery, and intensive care unit—to assess the impact patient death has on nurses. 

Despite only 11% of nurses reporting “that they reacted very emotionally to the death of a patient,” the study found that over half (53.9%) of surveyed nurses reported experiencing a high level of stress. 

These nurses were also asked to identify the emotions they felt, and across all levels of job seniority—compassion, sadness, and helplessness were the most common answers, with sorrow and depression next in line.

Analysis of the reported coping mechanisms showed that nurses tried to get emotional support, and planning and acceptance were identified as significant in dealing with 

How My Patient’s Death Made Me Feel

Some nurses have patients who die after an extended period of caring for them, which means connections are established between them and their patients’ families, nurses in oncology, for example, or in long-term care facilities. 

Others have patients who die after a short period of time in their care, as was the case for me. In the most memorable moment of my career as a nurse, I didn’t know the patient who died on my watch. I was working a PRN shift at a hospital an hour from home.

“I was holding one of her hands as her husband held the other. Preciously. Tenderly. Dearly, he clasped her hand and laid a gentle kiss on it as she took her very last breath.”

Nurses feel the passing of our patients differently than the patient’s friends and family members, but our feelings are valid. In the face of death, we are still required to perform our duties and strive to do our best.  

Whether—as nurses—we have the opportunity to establish connections with our patients over time or not, the death of a patient impacts our emotions. In my case, I felt a deep sense of compassion and reassurance that my work as a nurse supporting the family and making the patient’s comfort my priority mattered. I didn’t prevent her death; it was her time, but I did my best to make her last hours on this earth free of pain. 

“Compassionate end-of-life care can help ease the physical and emotional suffering of death.”

Read my full story, “My Patient Died Before My Eyes and I Was Changed as a Nurse.”

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