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Things We Never Discussed In Nursing School: Death and Dying

Compressions are halted, doctors and nurses packed inside a tiny room, medical supplies are strewn about. A lone voice in the middle of the chaos draws immediate silence in the room as they declare the time of death. Your patient is gone.

Death and dying.

This is one of the most traumatizing experiences for people in their lifetime. Dealing with the loss of a family member or friend causes so much emotional pain and turmoil.

For healthcare workers, its a unique circumstance. Death and dying are woven into the framework of our profession but it's more of an abstract concept until you are faced with its imminent reality. Basically, we know that people can die, but we don't realize it until someone actually dies.

Losing a patient is one of the most traumatizing experiences for a nurse. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been an ever present reality that some nurses have never dealt with before. It’s an experience that one often sees and hears about, but is never truly prepared for. As nurses, we are equipped with an inherent belief of giving, of helping, and of healing. Seeing a patient pass away goes against the very fiber of what we are trained to do. However, as nurses, it is important to maintain a balance between the ideals of a “hero” and the natural reality of loss that comes with dealing with the sick. It may be traumatizing for a new nurse to experience, but know that it is an inevitable part of our profession.

It's a bitter pill to swallow for many healthcare workers. We are conditioned to be the saviors and the fixers. Every patient loss, especially those in an emergency situation, is a moment where we feel like we did something wrong. After a code, you can often find nurses and healthcare providers beating themselves up and wondering: "What if I got there sooner? What could I have done differently? Where did I go wrong?"

I'll never forget one of my first codes. I was going through the motions of what needed to be done for my patient and then after, I walked into the supply room and had a massive panic attack. I kept replaying the discovery and the scenes over in my head and beating myself up in the process.

Death and dying is often glossed over in the nursing school curriculum but it is something that needs added focus. Every nursing student will reach a point in their career where they face death and they need to be mentally prepared. Nursing professors can help with this by instituting frank conversations about patient death and the emotional toll it holds.

For new nurses, here is some advice on how to cope with loss of a patient:

  • Recognize death is inevitable

  • Give yourself time to grieve

  • Communicate with family members

  • Talk with your colleagues

  • Pray or meditate

  • Give yourself a break to decompress

  • Engage in a relaxing time to reflect

  • Be outdoors or in a calming space

  • Never look for a reason or take on unnecessary blame

  • Do not dwell in grief

  • Seek out mental health resources if you continue to feel burdened or traumatized

Always remember, we must continue to be givers, lovers, and healers despite the reality of losing our patients. And most importantly, we must give ourselves time to grieve which reinforces our humanity in the midst of tragedy.

With Love,

Nurse Kay

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