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How can we prepare ourselves for patient deaths?

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Have you witnessed your first death?

I have, as I spent a couple of years working as a healthcare assistant on a care of the elderly ward and unfortunately death was a natural part of the job.

However for some students who have not been present at a death before, encountering the death of a patient can bring up some very personal and distressing emotions. It doesn’t matter whether that death was expected, or as a result of a sudden traumatic incident, the feelings involved can still be the same.

So how can we best prepare ourselves for what is actually part of the job?

I remember the first time I had to deal with a patient’s death. It was an older woman whose death was expected and I knew I would have to face up to the reality at some point, so when the patient did pass away I volunteered myself to perform the ’last offices’, the preparing of the body for transportation to the mortuary.

I felt uneasy and lightheaded but thankfully I had somebody there with me who was supportive and understanding.

As I progressed through my job as a healthcare assistant I became more and more used to experiencing patient deaths. There were different situations such as patients who were expected to die and other occasions where deaths were quick and traumatic.

I have been present to comfort people as they die and I feel that to be involved in somebody’s care at the end of their life is such a privileged position, after all it is one of the last bits of care that you will ever give to that patient. 

Of the advice that I’m able to give, I’d say - have a think about death, and how you might feel when a patient does die. Also, how would you like to learn about death? Would you prefer to be thrust in at the deep end or do you think you’ll cope better with a gentle introduction?

In all cases having support around you is essential, not only from the nursing staff but from your colleagues, friends and family. 

Have you spoken about death on your course and with your peers? How can we prepare ourselves for it?

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