5 Tips To Support Grieving Families During a Patient Death
Part of the art of nursing is learning how to craft your compassion and sympathy in professional situations. Because we deal with all cycles of life in healthcare, we must also deal with death. This can prove to be tricky, especially when consoling patients’ family members. Here's a bit of advice for when the situation gets tough.
1. It’s Not About You
Remember this: it’s not about you. Now, this may sound crass, but it is also a bit freeing. Your patient and their family are going through something extremely profound, and typically during these times people's senses and perceptions are altered. If you feel awkward in speaking to the family, realize that you probably feel this way because of your own feelings. This is a good opportunity to curb your own emotions for a moment, and focus on the patient's daughter, son, or mother.
2. It’s Not Personal
Once I had a patient who was actively passing away once care was withdrawn, and the patient’s daughter began lashing out at me for curious little details. This is normal. And it is not personal. People are feeling strong emotions and sometimes it comes out this way. Understand that when people act out in anger, they should be met with compassion and understanding and not a hard defense. (There’s a difference between people processing emotions verses being rude or disrespectful – you’ll know the difference.)
3. Read the Body Language
Many people deal with grieving in different ways. Part of being in tune with yourself is also being in tune with others. Personally, if family members look like they could use a hug, I will gladly ask if I can hug them. Every time, I have gotten a yes. That very release causes people to feel more human, to know that they are not alone in this cold hospital room. Some people do not process grief this way, and that's okay. Read your family and their personality and adhere to your own boundaries of personal space and connection.
4. Silence Can be Therapeutic
Sometimes not saying anything is the appropriate response. Just a squeeze on the hand or shoulder (if appropriate); offering a glass of water or a chair, can communicate more compassion than words ever could.
5. Social Sensitivity
This one could be controversial, but I believe that if there is a patient that is dying in a nearby room, it is best to be mindful of that and keep the energy mellow at the nurse’s station that day. I don't believe in being completely and utterly solemn, because dealing with death and dying is a daily part of the job and that would get depressing for us as staff pretty quickly. However, I do feel like I owe it to my patients and their family to keep loud and jovial outbursts to a minimum - or at least run around to the other station and get the laughs out at a distance.
Just remember that part of the nursing craft is developing your own style and how you individually will manage these difficult situations. Whatever you do, stay true to your values and your heart. People will feel that. It’s all part of the human connection.