Good Grief

With the current political malarkey, global climate changes, mass shootings, and most recently, the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, the world has much to grieve about nowadays. The accumulation of tragic events from just this year alone has everyone feeling melancholy, searching for ways to push through their daily lives with the shadow of grief lingering behind. While not everyone goes through the grieving process the same way, certain characteristics of grief are commonly seen, regardless of the situation.

In nursing, the characteristics of grief are observed frequently. Unfortunately, I can even say that the healthcare field is one of the areas where grief is observed most. With fatal diagnoses, unfavorable test results, and familial changes, nurses witness the multiple stages of grief among patients and their families, such as acceptance, denial, anger, bargaining, and even depression. Therefore, nurses must recognize and be sympathetic to those experiencing grief and help them to navigate through their difficult time.

For any nurse, caring for a patient or family while they are grieving can be somewhat awkward, but this can be even more applicable for a new nurse. Not only are you learning how to complete your daily tasks, you are admitting and discharging patients and trying to critically think all at the same time (whew!). Nevertheless, you may come across a situation where someone is grieving and you just don’t know what to do. Plain and simple. Whether your patient dies unexpectedly, is a victim of a traumatic event (e.g., rape, violence, divorce, etc.), or recently received some devastating news regrading their health, there are many triggers that can initiate the grieving process. Thankfully, healthcare professionals can play a large role in alleviating the blow of such a negative experience, while upholding the quality of care we wish to provide.

Here are some tips that anyone can use when caring for someone who is grieving (in no particular order):

  1. Be Empathetic-Try to understand where they are coming from, from their perspective, and without judgement or criticism in your tone of voice. Sometimes people need to feel understood and seen for who they are, despite the obstacles put against them.
  2. Listen– Most people who are experiencing a difficult time would like to express their frustrations. Let them. Allowing them to be heard can be a great form of patient advocacy. However, be sure to not pressure someone to share personal feelings with you before they are ready. Unless it’s detrimental to their well-being, pushing someone to open up prematurely can hinder rapport between patient and nurse and negatively affect patient outcomes.
  3. Respect Cultural Differences– There are many culture variations according to nationality, regional community, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Therefore, it is important to understand your patient’s cultural dynamics when it comes to customs and family in order to not appear disrespectful during their difficult time. If appropriate, ask for clarity and try to utilize culturally competent resources for assistance.

Think about it like this, how would you feel if you were going through a difficult time? Who would you like to talk to? How would you like to be treated? If you’re unsure, get help from nurse leaders, spiritual services, or even family members to be sure that the patient feels supported. Grief can be temporary or it can last for years. Therefore, assess each situation with a caring lens and understand that we all need one another at some point, whether we’re on this side of the stethoscope or not.

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