How to Cope With the Death of a Patient

Written by: Alex Brown
Published on: Oct 31, 2022

How to Cope with the Death of a Patient-1

It’s one of the heaviest aspects of working in medicine, yet rarely discussed: the death of a patient. You're not alone if you find it challenging to deal with losing a patient. Medical professionals rarely access counseling or take time to reflect after a patient passes. However, addressing grief and loss is critical to your mental well-being, and failing to do so could even lead to burnout.

Here are some healthy steps to help cope with the death of a patient.

Acknowledge the Loss
It might seem normal to move on and continue with your duties, compartmentalizing the event. However, ignoring the organic emotions that come with loss could make the issue worse over the long run. As psychologist Carl Jung stated, “What you resist not only persists but will grow in size.” His meaning: the longer you ignore an emotion or issue, the more it will increasingly affect you.

Take time to acknowledge the loss of your patient and its impact on you. If you’re in the middle of a busy shift and need to move on to the next patient, plan to take time later to process how you feel. Don’t try to minimize its impact, but allow yourself to feel the sadness, disbelief, shock, and anger that follows the death of a human being.

Let Go of Guilt
Guilt is a common element of grief. For medical professionals, guilt often manifests in pondering how the loss could have been prevented. For example, one study found that oncologists who lose patients grieve the loss and struggle with a sense of personal responsibility.

To begin a healing process, acknowledge the fact that guilt is a normal response to grief. Find positive ways to learn from what occurred. For example, consider how any missteps or oversights could have been prevented. Look for ways to improve care delivery from the situation. Avoid blaming yourself; rather take the opportunity to grow from the experience and improve patient care.

Address Physical Symptoms Quickly
You may also experience physical symptoms such as insomnia, fatigue, or nausea following the loss of a patient. Stress, depression, and anger can all manifest into physical responses. If you feel any of these symptoms, make sure you focus on a healthy diet and exercise as soon as you can.

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Find Support from Others
Sharing the experience with others can be one of the best ways to cope with a loss. Seek the support of loved ones to help deal with feelings of grief. Family, friends, colleagues, supervisors, and others you trust can help you process your experience and emotions. Grief support groups or faith-based organizations are also good outlets to find support if you are struggling.

Practice Self-Care
Self-care has become a popular term in the past few years. Grief is physically taxing, so caring for your physical health as a routine practice helps you cope with grief. Stick to a regular sleep and wake schedule, maintain a healthy diet, and exercise regularly. Find hobbies that leave you happy and energized, spend time with others, and make sure to get outdoors as much as possible. A little sun exposure can go a long way towards improving your mood.  

Heal in Your Own Way
Grief hits everyone differently, and there is no one way to cope. Hopefully, these tips can help you find a way to copy that works best for you. Take care of your mental and physical wellbeing and allow yourself to grieve through healthy outlets. Focus not only on your loss, but how your career allows you to truly support and help other people.

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