Dealing with Death

When working in a hospital, death is inevitable and unescapable. How does that old saying go…There are 2 things in life you can’t escape, death and taxes…or something to that effect. **There are some graphic details in this so if you would rather not be exposed to that please stop reading now 🙂

In this field that its truly inevitable, especially when working in a hospital…on an oncology unit…that also cares for other end of life patients.

The first patient i ever encountered that had passed on was during a night shift in nursing school. The patient was not mine on this particular night, but several of the other nurses on the unit encouraged me to go in to that room so my experience was not on my own. As  I walked into the room, you could feel the energy was just different. The patient was still laying in the bed the blankets tucked to his/her chin. He/she just looked like he/she was sleeping with the exception that his/her skin had taken on a yellowed waxy appearance. I helped one of the CNAs to prep the patient for transportation downstairs to the morgue. Placing someone into a glorified plastic bag after they have passed seems eerie like there should be more to it than that. We enter the world with people celebrating and anticipating our arrival, it seems like there should be more to the end than tears of loved ones and a body bag, but thats just my outside opinion.

I also accompanied the patient to the morgue where the security guard was a little over zealous and showed me all of the different things stored in the morgue. I did not realize and came to the rude awakening that more than deceased patients were kept in there. Not to go into too much detail, but I was not prepared for biopsies, amputations, and fetuses from fetal demise for any number of reasons, in the room in a cabinet. They were in jars and many in plastic bags that just looked like something you would find in a refrigerator, which made me uncomfortable for many reasons, but mostly because it seemed like they should be in something a little more substantial.

I definitely went home and had to have a couple of cups of soothing tea before I was able to go to sleep that morning. The image also stuck with me longer than I like to admit and I had a few nightmares about it before learning how to cope with it.

I had another experience in nursing school, but this experience was at the VA. After the patient passed he/she was prepared to be brought to the morgue, but at the VA they drape the patient in an American flag, and have a mini ceremony/procession. They ring a bell and announce that a Veteran is leaving as he/she passes through the hall. The medical personnel can move into the hall to show their respect as the patient passes through.

This was a MUCH different experience than my first one. This patient’s passing felt much more like a celebration of the life of this patient and his/her passing. I felt like this was a lovely way to not only honor the patient, but give the family closure. The family not only gets closure from this, but also the staff who have cared for the patient for the many months he has been there.

The important thing to note from all of this, is that different hospitals do different things when it comes to death, and each person deals with it differently. Being respectful of everyones wishes helps family members of patients feel supported. Finding healthy coping mechanisms for healthcare personnel is essential for not feeling burned out.

What are some of your coping mechanisms for dealing with patient deaths? Any other questions comments or concerns? Please leave them in the comments 🙂



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