Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW
Edited by Joe DeNoon
The death and dying process is a process nurses see more than the average population of workers, whether it is seeing a patient die from their sickness or injury or having to talk to the family/friends of the patient who has died or is dying. Death is an inevitable topic when you are a nurse. As a topic that most people avoid talking about daily, the thought of death tends to overwhelm us, in one way or another. I am sure you all have had the experience of talking about what you experience in your daily work lives to someone who is not a nurse and their response has sounded somewhat like, “I don’t know how you deal with it, and I don’t want to hear more because it is overwhelming for me.” Doesn’t feel too good, and it makes it even harder to talk about with others and process what has happened. I also think about the culture of: “I need to be strong and move on.” Neither of the situations listed above make it easy to process and cope with the death and dying process. So what can we do to support ourselves in coping?
A place to start is to develop a comfort level with the death and dying process. To be clear, comfort and numbness are very different. Comfort means something does not bring you distress because the emotions, tasks, and thoughts surrounding it do not overwhelm you. Numbness, although the topic does not bring you distress when talked about, is a way you cope when the emotions are too overwhelming. Something I recommend when you first think about how you cope is asking yourself, “Do I numb myself, do I get overwhelmed, or am I truly comfortable with this process?” My first thought is most of you know how to numb your emotions, but not address them. When we numb ourselves, it makes things more manageable for the moment, but because we are avoiding the emotions, this short term solution makes it harder to manage and seem more daunting later on. It compounds the sense of loss, and even leads to avoidance of relationships with patients, coworkers, and in our personal life.
Some ways to start to get comfortable with the death and dying process can start with accepting that death is inevitable, as well as accepting the emotions that come with death. These emotions are not something to fear or become overwhelmed by—our bodies and brain will take care of our own needs, we just need to start listening to them. Actually listening to our own body is something that we have not been taught how to do. Especially for nurses, you may have been taught the opposite. You have had to prioritize others’ needs over your own time and time again, so it can be so hard to know what you need. It starts with practice. If you feel you want to stay in bed and sleep until the feelings go away, what you probably need to do is to rest. Close your eyes, check in with your body, and breathe. This will tell you what you need. Sometimes what you need is to cry, or shake, or continue taking deep breaths. When your body wants to stay in bed or sleep, that is avoidance. Starting to listen to your body is a process, and it is a practice. It starts with trying!
Give yourself time to grieve as well! Whether it is a 5 minute bathroom break, or taking time at the end of your day in your car, or talking about the death with a trusted friend/family member/coworker, take time to acknowledge the hardship you experienced with a patient’s death. Taking this time will not only allow you to acknowledge the hardship, it will also give you a space to process the emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them. Have an end to this time as well. Allow yourself to have 5 minutes or 10 minutes, but also check in with your needs. If you find yourself escalating, pause the moment, allow yourself to regulate through breathing, meditation, music, or talking about another topic. You want to help your brain and body know that processing and coping with death and dying is not a scary process. You are training your brain so that when it gets overwhelming, you can and will regulate!
I have included a video of a therapist talking about grief in the moment when she is grieving. She discusses her process of grief, and while your process does not have to mirror her process (she brings up what has helped her as well as her faith), I think she explains her process with a rawness we usually don’t get to see when talking about grief.
What I want you to look for in the video is these skills: recognizing death will happen, allowing time to grieve, communicating needs with others, talking about it, allowing a break in the moment, engaging in relaxing/regulation skills, not dwelling in the grief, and not looking for a reason.
Death and dying is a hard topic to learn how to cope with, and it is important to normalize the need to cope and address the feelings/emotions related to this process!