How to Effectively Cope with Patient Death


Article Categories: Caregiver Corner & CNA Skills



The emotional toll of a patient’s death on healthcare staff, including nursing assistants, can be devastating—even if it’s expected in the care industry. We try to make meaningful connections at work and do our best for those under our care, so a patient’s passing can shake our resolve, especially when they have touched our life.

The irony is that, while CNAs know how to comfort grieving families, they often find themselves personally at a loss and unable to deal with the experience. They may break down, fall into depression, or think of quitting their job altogether.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are ways to cope:

1. Redirect your care from the patient to their family.

The patient’s family mourns their loss and you feel their pain, too. The best way to regain control of your emotions is to continue to provide support to the patient's loved ones.

2. Prepare yourself mentally.

You won’t know the exact day or hour of someone’s death, but you can be prepared mentally by understanding that death happens to each of us. It’s a cold truth, but in accepting its nature, you will better know how to manage your emotions.

Prepare to feel sympathy rather than empathy. Sympathy is understanding the grief or suffering of another, while empathy is sharing those feelings. When possible, CNAs need to be more sympathetic than empathetic so they can continue to effectively care for others.

3. Talk it out with your colleagues.

You will eventually have your first encounter with patient death and the sadness may stay with you for a long time. Turn to your coworkers and managers, who understand what you are going through and are willing to offer support.

Also, the patient's death may have affected others as well, and being there for each other during these low times can lift team spirit. You can also reach out to your family and friends.

4. Give yourself time to let it sink in.

Whether it’s a five-minute break or half your lunch break, take some time to breathe. Quiet time to think, process, or take a short walk can help you regain composure and focus on your tasks.

5. Do meditation after your shift.

You may be grieving yourself. It’s perfectly okay to feel this way. To find relief, meditate on the impact the patient had on your life as well as the difference you made in theirs. These are valuable lessons that stay with you for life and make you appreciate your job as a nursing assistant even more.

Don't wait around hoping to get used to losing a patient. That may never come, especially if you are the compassionate type. What can happen is that, over years of encountering patient death, you become more accepting of how finite human life is.

6. If the pain becomes too much and affects your care for others, don't hesitate to seek professional counseling.

Losing a patient can shatter you. If you’re having trouble, go to a therapist or counselor. They can help you process your grief and deal with the experience.

It is important for CNAs to cope effectively with the loss of a patient—not only for themselves, but because they have to keep it together and continue caregiving for others. Coping with a patient’s death is an unfortunate and inevitable journey, but you will learn important lessons along the way.

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