What Do Nurses Do When a Patient Dies: 8 Coping Strategies For Professionals

Losing patients is something that nurses deal with as part of their jobs. This doesn’t make going through the loss any easier, no matter how often it happens. Nursing can put you in contact with many people who are suffering and facing death, especially if you work in a hospice center or similar facilities. 

After a death happens, you don’t have the chance to go home and process it. Instead, you must finish your workday and keep caring for other patients. 

Although it’s something every nurse will have to deal with at some point, the impact of patient death on nurses is not always taken into consideration. If you’ve faced such a loss recently and are not sure how to manage it, it’s important to have an idea of what nurses do after a patient dies and how you can help yourself get through the aftermath. 

What Do Nurses Do When a Patient Dies?

The death of a patient initiates a complex series of procedures that the nurse has to attend to while they’re trying to come to terms with the loss themselves. The nurse’s role in the grieving process usually involves offering comfort to the deceased’s loved ones while balancing the many tasks the job demands. 

Post-Mortem Care

Right after the death, nurses provide post-mortem care to prepare the body for the morgue. That includes placing the body in the dorsal position, removing any medical equipment, bathing the body with a Lysol solution, and stopping any discharge before putting the shroud on the body. 

These are all difficult steps, but you are likely prepared for the process if you’ve worked in nursing care of dying patient services. 

However, what do nurses do when a patient dies unexpectedly? In this situation, it can be more challenging to manage post-mortem care. Before you start, make sure that you know whether the case will have to go to the medical examiner since that can change the procedures you follow. You may have to call the coroner to check. 

Provide Emotional Support to the Family

Another of the most crucial tasks a nurse has to perform is to offer support to the family. How nurses help families deal with death depends on the individual nurse and the facility’s protocols. Still, it usually involves taking them aside to a private area, calling the chaplain if necessary, and answering any questions the family has. 

Loved ones respond differently to death, so gauging the best way of offering comfort is essential. Listening and being there for the family is usually enough, but the best approach can also depend on your relationship with each person affected by the death. 

You may also want to ask about autopsy needs or funeral home plans. If the family doesn’t know how to go about the process of laying a loved one to rest, a patient death coordinator or case manager can help. Ensure you also communicate with the funeral home and tell them which family member is responsible for the decisions. 

Fill Out the Death Paperwork

The family will have paperwork to sign, as will the attending doctor (including the death certificate) and the funeral home. 

Protocols vary from facility to facility, but make sure you’ve charted everything needed, including the people you have called, such as the coroner or funeral home. Record the details, from when the body was picked up and what you’ve done with the patient’s belongings. 

8 Coping Strategies for Nurses Dealing With a Patient’s Death

What do nurses do when a patient dies? The answer needs to be clarified when talking about how a nurse copes with the loss. Recovering from a loss is a draining process. There are things you can do to process your emotions, however, so that you can continue providing the care your patients and their families need. 

1. Talk to Your Peers

It doesn’t matter whether it is the first time you’ve had a patient die or if you have a lot of experience with this challenging aspect of the profession — you must reach out to your peers. They understand what you’re struggling with, and speaking with someone who will listen and share their own experiences is a huge help. It offers the perspective you need. 

Something to remember, especially when caring for a terminal patient, is to reach out to peers before the death occurs. Speaking about what you’re going through makes it easier to come to terms with the situation. Peers can help you prepare for end-of-life patient scenarios and offer guidance on how to speak with the family. 

2. Seek Professional Help

Dealing with death as a nurse puts you at risk of empathy fatigue and even dissociation. Seeing patients die without taking time to manage or process your feelings puts serious stress on your mental health. When you start struggling in this manner, turning to professionals for help is vital. 

Counseling can be a good choice if the patient’s death was traumatic or if you built a relationship with the person as you cared for them. When you reach out to a professional, one of the things they’ll help with is showing you how to identify and express what you’re feeling. 

As part of the profession, nurses are required to stay calm through all kinds of situations. That means putting emotion aside and dealing with the task at hand. 

This attitude works well when dealing with medical emergencies or even with everyday patient care, but it’s harmful when trying to manage grief. You can’t get through loss unless you face it. A mental health professional can show you how to do this beneficially.

There are also lots of support groups available online and in person for nurses and other healthcare professionals who deal with deaths. Sometimes, you only need to speak about the experience with others who understand. For some people, seeking help from religious leaders also offers the right level of support.

3. Engage in Self-Care

A nurse comforting patients brings to mind a hardworking individual who can withstand every pressure and keep working. That’s not the reality of nursing, but younger professionals may expect themselves not to flinch or need a break after the death of a patient. That expectation puts you at risk of burnout. 

To be able to function, you need to take time for self-care. Most people associate self-care with spas or indulgences. Essentially, self-care is maintaining your physical and mental well-being so that you can continue to fully participate in your work and your private life. 

As a nurse, you know better than most what it means to care for a patient. It means offering them the right food, ensuring they take their medications and engage in their therapies, keeping them clean, and keeping their spirits up. The same things apply to you. 

You can’t expect to function at your best if you’re not eating correctly or if you’re not taking the time to get an adequate amount of sleep. You might see changes in your sleeping or eating patterns after the death of a patient, but it’s important to give yourself the same care and pep talks you would give a patient. 

Take a break if you need it. Many nurses try to distract themselves from the grief of the loss, taking on more shifts or going above and beyond their tasks. That is not sustainable, and it stops you from sitting with the loss and dealing with it. 

There is nothing wrong about needing to take a moment to allow all the feelings and thoughts you have to run through you. Grief is not something you can ignore forever, so taking the time to face it will help you heal more quickly. 

4. Set Boundaries

Offering care and compassionate words to family members who are suffering is part of being a nurse, but it can become too much in some instances. If the family is asking a lot from you emotionally, you have to put your mental well-being first. That is not an easy thing to do, but setting boundaries is for the benefit of everyone, including the patient’s family.

Many nurses provide priority intervention for a client who has a terminal illness, spending a lot of time with them and investing a lot of emotional effort in their well-being. If this is all becoming too much for you, setting boundaries with the patient may be the right option. Distancing yourself or compartmentalizing may seem problematic when caring for a patient, but it can help you cope, especially with those who have terminal illnesses. 

Setting boundaries might mean avoiding thinking about a patient after work hours and trying to step away from your worry when you’re at home. It’s not easy to achieve this separation, but it makes a difference for nurses who see a lot of deaths and want to prepare themselves by putting some distance between them and the patient.  

5. Planning and Problem-Solving

Another vital tool to help you manage the loss of a patient is to plan ahead of the occurrence. If you know the patient is seriously ill and faces the risk of death, think through the worst-case scenarios. You can involve your peers as well. 

If death is expected to come in a particular way, planning who will manage what tasks when it happens helps your mind begin to process the possibility of death. 

6. Practice Self-Compassion

Nurses place others’ needs over their own, offering care and compassion when necessary. Many times, however, they forget to provide it to themselves. It’s common for nurses to feel guilty or responsible in some way after the death of a patient, unfounded as those feelings may be. 

One way of managing this emotion is to think of someone you love being in your shoes. What would you say to them if they felt what you were feeling? Would you blame them or comfort them? You may even want to write down what you would say to console them and then read it out loud. Show yourself the same compassion you would show anyone else dealing with the same situation. 

7. Cultivate Hope

Seeing a patient die might leave you feeling hopeless, unsure whether you did your job well, or struggling to find meaning in your profession. 

It’s difficult to break away from this kind of negative thinking, but you can do it by focusing on your impact on the patient and their family. Every little thing counts, from a kind word to a smile to checking in on them when you don’t have to. Consider every way you made their life just a bit better, even for a few moments.

Remind yourself that your work matters and that you have a positive impact on the lives of others. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be upset or sad over the death of the patient, but it will help you put their passing in perspective so that you can continue doing the job you love. 

8. Reflect With Your Peers

After the death of a patient, it may be helpful to walk through everything that occurred. That allows you to identify areas where you and your peers can improve while acknowledging the instances in which you offered precisely what was needed. Reflection of this kind will enable you to feel a sense of purpose, helping you manage the loss in a healthier way. 

Find Your Next Travel Nursing Assignment With Triage Staffing

Nursing has challenging moments, but it also offers the joy of seeing a patient heal or making someone struggling smile. Triage Staffing provides opportunities to continue offering the care that people around the country need. When you turn to us, we’ll help you find your next travel nurse job easily so that you can get back to doing what you were meant to do: making a difference in the lives of others. 

We’re here to help traveling nurses find great opportunities and facilities stocked with the talent they need. Find your next assignment with Triage Staffing.