Moving On After Your First Patient Death

Article Categories: Nurse On the Job & Taking Care of Yourself

In nursing school, RNs learn about death and the care of dying patients, but nothing can totally prepare them for encountering patient death in real life. The blow is always heavy and gut-wrenching.

When nurses are asked to recall their first experience of patient death, they cannot recount the details without feeling deeply moved by those memories. Some are haunted by their patients’ faces as they took their last breath. Some are stricken with guilt, asking themselves what they might have done wrong or what more they could have done to keep their patients alive.

They find themselves saying, "I must have given up on the CPR too early,” and "I should have reported the drowsiness much earlier," or asking themselves, "Was it the additional pain meds he took?" The feelings of failure can be so intense that some even leave the profession, because they are unable to cope.

Seeing life taken away from someone you have cared for is difficult, even if you muster all your strength and accept this inevitable part of a nurse’s life. A patient’s death impacts you significantly and can make you question both your nursing abilities and your vulnerability as a human being. It can also reawaken past hurts brought about by a loved one's death.

As nurses face this reality, they must take the next step and move on. They have to overcome. Their capacity for caring must continue, because the bereaved family (as well as the other patients) need their attention.

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

1. Give yourself time to express and process your emotions.

Cry if you have to. Say your goodbyes to the patient. Acknowledge your own feelings and accept the loss. Ask your colleagues for support. Tell your supervisor, who has gone through a similar situation, and they will encourage you. Give yourself some time to recover and regain your confidence in caring for others.

2. Do not blame yourself or anyone else.

Do not cling to the feelings of guilt. Do not beat yourself up over it or blame someone else for your patient's death. However, if the death is indeed caused by an error on your part, report to your supervisor and follow institutional policies on how to handle such cases.

3. Recognize that patient death is a part of nursing life.

As a nurse, you must be able to provide care efficiently, even right after the experience. Remember that you still have the patient's family to care for. Your strength at this point can help them immensely in their grief.

4. Learn from the situation.

Whether regarding your nursing skills or your personal life, a patient's death can teach you a lot of lessons. Use the situation to learn how to better yourself as a nurse and value life more, while becoming more proactive in saving other patients' lives.

5. Try meditation to relieve stress.

Give yourself a break. Take deep breaths and meditate to free your mind of the memories. Give yourself time to heal and take care of yourself. Spend time with family and friends. Write down your thoughts to help process how you feel.

Nurses are the backbone of the healthcare industry. As such, they are admired for their dedication and their compassion for patients, and experiencing their first patient death can often give a whole new meaning to caring.