Student nurse Megan recounts her first experience of delivering care after death during her first placement
On my very first day of my first placement, I was not expecting to carry out care after death just two hours into my twelve-hour shift.
Around 9.45am, the nurses informed me about the death of a patient and asked me if I had ever given this type of care. I immediately felt scared and apprehensive, as I knew she was going to ask me to participate. She asked me if I felt comfortable enough to go in with her. Strangely, I did. Although I was the most nervous I have ever been in my entire life, I felt comfort in knowing I was about to prepare the patient for the final time. Somehow, there was a sense of privilege in being the one to carry out this last act of kindness for her.
We gathered the required items and made our way to the side room. As we opened the door, I felt scared as I didn’t know how the scene was going to look. I was taken back at how the patient was lying in the bed. Her mouth was open wide and her eyes still half open. The nurse tried to close her mouth gently but her jaw had locked and wouldn’t close. I asked if I could try and close her eyes, which the nurse supported me in doing. I was shocked as I attempted to close her eyes at how difficult it was. It wasn’t like on television when someone runs their hand over the person’s eyes and they close. I learned it was much more difficult.
The initial fear I had felt quickly disappeared. I found myself thinking that just a few hours ago, I had introduced myself to the patient. We had shaken hands and she had chatted to me about her life. I found myself asking how it was that only a few hours ago we had talked and now she was gone.
As we began to wash the patient, I ensured that I covered her to maintain her dignity and privacy just as I would have done with any other patient. I was surprised that it wasn’t any different. Somehow it was more rewarding, knowing that I had the privilege of carrying out this last act for her. We spoke to her throughout, which I found comforting. As I washed her hands, I found myself studying them. The veins and the patterns of this woman’s hands were a symbol of a long life that had witnessed and achieved more than I ever have in my twenty years.
After we finished washing her, we dressed her in a shroud and I combed her hair. The nurse explained that we had to wrap her body in the sheets, which I was not expecting. We began to wrap her up starting from her feet and I started to feel quite emotional as we approached her head. It felt like it was the final goodbye. That moment will stay with me forever.
We exited the room as we said our final goodbyes and called the porters. The nurse gave me a hug afterwards and said she was proud of how I had conducted myself and carried out my work. I no longer felt scared, just honoured. The experience had been very touching and intimate and her memory will always be with me.
To other student nurses I will say, don’t be scared if asked to give care after death. I never imagined providing care after death to be so heartening and rewarding. I can’t quite put it into words, but being able to give your patient that dignified, final act of care and kindness is an honour.
Megan Brennan is in her first year studying adult nursing at Glasgow Caledonian University