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Nursing student grieving after the death of a patient

Dealing with Death as a Nursing Student

By: Hollie David

Death is common in the hospital but nursing students are rarely prepared to deal with it. Although death is a natural part of life, it’s typically not talked about that way, especially in nursing school. Instead, we discuss how people die, the dying process, and how to prevent patients from dying. We don’t learn how death will impact us or how to cope when faced with death and loss. We don’t learn about the emotional and mental toll it will take or the experience of being with someone during their dying days. Most of us aren’t equipped to cope with grief or process our emotions. The fast pace of nursing school leaves little time to process what goes on in our practice let alone all the emotions that death can bring up .

Death is unavoidable, patients are going to die, but we can find healthy ways handle it. As nursing students, we should examine our beliefs about death and find ways to cope.

What are your thoughts around death and dying?

The first step in dealing with death and dying is examining your own thoughts about it. Death can bring out a lot of complex emotions, such as fear and anxiety. Knowing your beliefs and feelings surrounding death will allow you to better face it in your work workplace. Developing a plan to deal with death can help offset serious consequences, including poor personal health or burnout. Start by asking yourself what thoughts and feelings come up when you think about death. Examine why you feel that way. It may be beneficial to journal or discuss these questions with someone you trust.

How will you process a patient’s death?

When one of your patients dies, give yourself time to process it. Allow yourself to feel all of the emotions that come up and know that they’re all normal. Take time to reflect and acknowledge all of the efforts that you made for your patient. If it feels right to you, try to honor the patient in some way, either with a moment of silence or another way that aligns with your beliefs. Treat the death like any other loss. Just because a patient died doesn’t mean that the loss doesn’t have an impact on you. Take the time to process your emotions and honor the life lost.

How can you cultivate hope rather than despair?

Seeing a patient die can make you feel hopeless. It may make you feel like the work you’re doing is useless because you couldn’t save the patient. You may start to blame yourself. Instead, consider what your presence and care meant to the patient and their family. The little things that we do as nurses and nursing students have an impact on our patients. Knowing that someone cares for you during your time of need has meaning. In addition to the impact you make in big ways, consider the little things you do everyday that make a difference. Practice self-compassion and recognize that the patient’s death doesn’t define you as a nurse and doesn’t reflect on your skills.

What’s the right coping mechanism for you?

Coping skills can help us minimize unpleasant emotions. We need to develop them when we’re feeling well so that we can turn to them when facing a difficult situation. It’s hard to take care of yourself, especially during nursing school where mental health isn’t always a priority. However, it’s important to try to make time for self-care. Some coping mechanisms that might help you deal with the death of a patient include sharing your experiences with someone you trust, rest, exercise, and journaling. Coping mechanisms are unique to each person, so experiment to see what works best for you.

Can you set boundaries?

Try not to dwell in the grief. Set a boundary for yourself between what happens at work and your home life. If you’re consumed by thoughts about the person who died, you can’t be your best self. Acknowledge the death, feel your feelings, and then let it go. Continually holding on to stress can lead to burnout.

Remember your positive role

Death is an inevitable part of life. As nursing students, we must take time to examine our own beliefs about death because for the rest of our career we’ll be dealing with it. Find coping skills that work best for you and remember that even if a patient dies you played positive role at the end of their life.

Hollie David is a student nurse technician in Bristol, Conn.

The views and opinions expressed by Perspectives contributors are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the American Nurses Association, the Editorial Advisory Board members, or the Publisher, Editors and staff of American Nurse Journal. These are opinion pieces and are not peer reviewed.

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