When caring for patients, remember to care for yourself.

    As nurses, we’re responsible for taking care of our patients both physically and mentally. But severe injury or illness isn’t difficult for just the patient – the impact of patient death takes a mental toll on nurses, as well (as we covered in our article last month). 

    It’s essential not just for ourselves but also our patients that we process our emotions so we can continue to do our jobs at the highest level. Whether you’re comforting a patient in pain, managing family members, or dealing with your own grief over a patient, nurses need strategies to cope with the negative impacts of saving lives every day.

    Strategies for nurses to cope with patient death

    1. Identify and Express Emotions: Nurses should allow themselves to feel and process their emotions when a patient dies, including sadness, guilt, and anger. Some nurses might feel obligated to “stay strong” or “put on a brave face” for the sake of the patient or family, but it is important to acknowledge your own feelings. In fact, although it would be inappropriate to seek emotional support from a patient’s relatives, acknowledging the impact the patient had on you can be a comfort to families processing grief.

    2. Seek Support: Nurses should seek support from colleagues, supervisors, or professional counselors after the death of a patient. Although commiserating with friends and family might seem helpful, fellow nurses will understand your situation better than well-meaning acquaintances who have never experienced patient care. Talking with someone familiar with the demands of nursing can help you process difficult emotions and gain perspective.

      Support groups, either in-person or online, help nurses share experiences and coping strategies. When looking for a group, ensure that there is some level of confidentiality to protect both yourself and your patients.

    3. Engage in Self-Care: While the #selfcare hashtag on social media conjures images of desserts and spa days, remember that the purpose of self-care is maintaining your own mental and physical wellbeing so you can continue to thrive in your life and work. While that might mean the occasional cookie cake and Housewives marathon, you should prioritize activities like regular exercise, mindfulness, and adequate sleep. To avoid burnout, engage in hobbies or activities that bring you joy and spend time with loved ones outside of the hospital.

      As a nurse, you know how to care for your patients: feed them healthy food, ensure they do physical therapy and take their medication, get them clean and ambulating. Think about caring for yourself in the same way.

      1. Use Group- and Self-Reflection: After a patient dies, nurses can reflect on the care they provided and identify areas where they could improve in the future and, importantly, what they did well and can be proud of. While it’s natural to wonder what else you could have done, don’t forget the things that went according to plan and provided comfort to the patient while in your care. This includes connecting with the patient’s family or participating in end-of-life care. Reflection can help nurses learn from their experiences and feel a sense of purpose in their work.

        Just as medical professionals conduct a postmortem on the physical body, nursing departments should consider a review process that centers care practices and the emotional needs of providers. These reflections can help nurses process grief and gain perspective. For nurses in locations without a formal review process, journaling can offer a way to reflect on your experiences.

    4. Seek Professional Help: If a nurse is experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or PTSD, it’s important to seek professional help. Mental health professionals can provide therapy, medication, or other interventions to help nurses manage their symptoms and improve wellbeing. If you notice symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, replaying incidents over and over, a loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed, heightened reactions, or changes in sleep or appetite, consider seeking professional mental health treatment.

      Many hospitals have strict confidentiality policies for employees seeking mental health treatment at their facilities. However, if privacy is a concern, many independent practitioners offer sliding-scale treatment or group therapy that can reduce the cost of sessions.
    5. Support Colleagues Dealing With Grief:  No one knows better than fellow nurses the toll that caregiving can take. When you see a colleague experiencing grief or overwhelm associated with patient death, provide support by asking what they’re experiencing and how you can help. This might include sharing memories of the patient, providing mentorship, directing them to appropriate mental health resources, reviewing care practices, assisting with tasks, and, when appropriate and approved by a supervisor, switching shifts to allow them to process their grief.

    Coping strategies like these help nurses manage the emotional toll of patient death while continuing to provide high-quality care to patients. It’s important for nurses to prioritize their own wellbeing and seek support when needed, in order to maintain their own mental and emotional health.

    For our travelers, if you feel uncomfortable or anxious about seeking support from new colleagues at your temporary assignment, we understand. Please give our team a call and we’ll connect you with one of our dedicated nurse managers to provide the support you need.

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