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Dealing with death and my own feelings of failure

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Chloe knew that at some point during her Year to Care, she would need to confront her feelings about death

Six weeks in, and my role as an auxiliary nurse still feels exciting and fresh. Life on my ward is as much thrilling as it is manic because, being an admissions ward, the diversity and the pace means I am permanently engaged, thinking and prioritising. Having a background in bar work, I’ve found the dynamics are very similar; anything slower and my incredibly short attention span would have already kicked in.

However, something that concerned me at the beginning of the programme became a reality last week. Responding to death is something all healthcare professionals have to deal with – “a professional hazard”. 

I wasn’t completely naïve, I’ve had some previous experience of death. When I was about 13 years old, my hamster died and I cried for two hours, dramatically declaring it to be the worst day of my entire life, because how on earth could I possibly go on my many planned adventures without my fallen furry comrade?

Aside from this, my perception of death was that it is something that happens, but to other people. I felt that death was a concept that happened to you, rather than something symptomatic that we are able to control.

That morning, I had spoken to the patient, washed her, combed her hair, changed her nightdress and then left. Just half an hour later, a staff nurse came over and told me the patient had died. 

My first thought was that she had been alone, and with that came a feeling of personal and professional failure. It sounds selfish to make someone else’s death about my own feelings, but I felt guilty that she had died alone in hospital. I felt like my role had effectively been impotent because although I had cared for her, when it actually mattered, when she may have needed someone to be there, I wasn’t there. Regardless of the fact that I could neither have known this was going to happen nor even have been there when it did.

I was invited to carry out last offices with the auxiliary bereavement champion. Following a process methodically and thoroughly felt beneficial because as well as providing closure it allowed me to alleviate that guilt. 

This was the last thing I could do for this patient, because although she had died, she will never stop being a person. Talking her was psychologically healing because it reinforced the attitude that this was still someone who needed to be cared for and treated with sensitivity and dignity.

Personally, performing last offices was not an emotional process; it was a dignified one. This process was not about me, it was about the patient.

The full effects of the death did not properly register until later, when I was alone at home. Then it was allowed to be about me; then I was allowed to express grief. Reflecting back, I had purposely stopped myself from thinking about it until I had no choice. So I took the time to mentally work back through each step, a process that is crucial to coping. 

Every death will be unique but the process will always remain the same, so learning and repeating a familiar process helps to prepare and lessens distress.

I am all too aware that not all experiences in my Year to Care will be positive, but it has so far been enlightening.


Chloe Marsh is on the Year to Care scheme at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham


And I still turn up for work wanting more.

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