Coping with the Loss of a Patient

Advice on dealing with grief after losing a patient for hospital staff and carers

Last updated: 5 October 2017

If you work in a hospital or care home, you may be affected by patients passing away. Many think that working alongside people who are ill on a daily basis means that you are immune from the effects of grief. You may have tried to set up social boundaries between you and the patient to prevent an emotional relationship growing. Similarly, you and your colleagues may provide ‘task allocated care’ so no one staff member feels responsible for a patient.

However, none of these things guarantee that you will not be affected by the loss of a patient. You may have recently lost a patient for the first time, or perhaps there is a particular loss that affected you deeply. Try to be kind to yourself and remember that compassion is a strength, not a weakness. Grieving after losing a patient is not something to be ashamed of.

The pain of losing a patient

Grief after losing a patient can differ significantly depending on the circumstances and your working relationship with them. Ultimately, everyone has a unique experience of grief and you may react differently from your co-workers.

You may have heard of the five stages of grief, which may be useful to help you understand what you are feeling. Remember, however, that these stages are just a guideline and are by no means a fail-safe list of how grief should happen. In addition to the emotions listed in the five stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance - you may also experience the following:

  • Grief before the patient passes away. Also known as anticipatory grief or pre-bereavement, you may start to grieve as the patient’s condition worsens and you realise they will soon pass away.
  • A sense of inadequacy. You have trained and studied to help people, so it can feel like a failure when you can no longer help one of your patients. Try to be kind to yourself and seek support from co-workers where available.
  • Feeling isolated and alone. Your co-workers may seem unaffected by the loss, which may make you feel alone in your grief. Be assured that every healthcare professional experiences some kind of grief at some point.
  • Feeling the pressure to ‘be okay’ and ‘get over it’. While it is important that you can continue to do your job, sometimes the best way to do this is taking the time to admit your feelings and process them properly.

All of the reactions highlighted here come from the experiences of registered nurses and healthcare support workers from a study carried out by Sheffield Hallam University. You may not experience all of these feelings, but these represent the most common reactions to losing a patient.

Moving towards healing

As someone who may experience loss more regularly than most people, it is important that you develop ways of coping with intense emotions as you grieve. While you should in no way ignore or repress what you are feeling, you need to learn to cope in a way that allows you to continue with daily tasks.

You should consider the following ways of coping with grief:

  • Take the time to compose yourself. Even a short break away from the clinical area can be beneficial.
  • Get help from your work’s internal support structure. They may be able to provide counselling, training, or more informal flexibility.
  • Develop your own social support network with co-workers. You will be able to get the reassurance you need informally and as you work.
  • Find a trusted friend outside work to talk to. Their distance from the situation may make you feel more comfortable.

Reaching out for help, especially at work, can be daunting, especially if you fear it will make you look weak or bad at your job. Try to remember that these feelings are natural and almost everyone you work with will have been through something similar, even if they do not show it. Don’t be afraid to make use of workplace support provided by your employer. It is there to help you.

If the loss of a patient continues to affect you, learning how to cope with your loss could help you heal. Alternatively, contact a bereavement support counsellor.