Tips & Advice

Coping With Grief in the Workplace

Tips & AdviceNovember 10, 2016

Nurses occupy a unique position in the healthcare landscape. They’re often described as serving on the front lines of healthcare, fighting disease and illness in the trenches. The war analogy occasionally seems all too apt. Armed conflicts are brutal, dangerous, exhausting, and emotionally and psychologically draining. At times, a career in nursing can seem similarly challenging. In addition to the many responsibilities and demands on time and attention that are part of the job of nursing, there’s the added burden of grief. 

No one likes to dwell on it, but death is the proverbial elephant in the room wherever medicine is practiced. We dedicate our careers to helping patients get better, so they can resume their normal, productive lives among their own co-workers and loved ones. But, of course, that’s not always the final outcome. Despite our best efforts and intentions, some patients do not recover from their illnesses or injuries. Some will die. It’s a fact of life; it’s certainly a fact of nursing. 

Technologists, clinicians, diagnosticians, and even doctors and other healthcare personnel, often get to swoop in and perform some task or evaluation before rushing out to tend to other duties. That leaves nurses to fill in the gaps; to take the time to get to know their patients on some level as human beings, rather than as a set of parameters and conditions.

Nurses are often the most familiar faces that patients will see with regularity. As the patient’s nurse, you are literally and figuratively the familiar face of the healthcare team. Your patient may be in pain, or frightened, or both. Often, it’s the nurse who gets to know a patient, and gains his or her trust.

Of course, this also means that as a nurse, you are all the more vulnerable to the effects of grief. When a patient you’ve cared for diligently, and perhaps looked upon fondly, suddenly dies, how does one cope with the sadness that results from such a loss?

Here are some tips for coping with grief:

It’s natural to experience sadness or grief

Sadness over the loss of someone you’ve been caring for is only natural. Denying your emotions is not. Denying your feelings may seem like the most professional response at the time, but mental health experts caution that it’s potentially damaging. Never feel compelled to deny your feelings. You’re only human. That’s part of what makes you a good nurse. You care and you feel. That’s okay. Of course, sometimes you have to soldier on when other patients are still depending on you. But don’t give in to the impulse to suppress your grief indefinitely. It’s simply not healthy for you.

Keep in mind you’re only doing your job

Losing a patient you’ve come to know can be painful. The very empathy that makes you effective at delivering comfort makes you vulnerable to the effects of the inevitable losses you will experience in your career. Try to keep in mind that there is a difference between your career and your life. It’s okay to go on living. It’s ultimately all any of us can do in response to the loss of someone dear to us.  


Loose lips may sink ships, but they can also help buoy your spirits after a patient loss. Talk to other nurses who’ve been there. A sympathetic ear is never far away when you’re working with other healthcare professionals. They’ve probably all been through similar situations—often multiple times. Seek them out and ask to talk through your feelings. You may be surprised at how much it can help. You may find it also strengthens the bond between you and your co-workers.

Avoid the blame game

It’s natural to question your actions surrounding your patient’s care before he or she died. Self-awareness is useful and helpful. But don’t berate yourself too harshly for what you may or may not have done better. Unless you made a mistake—or failed to do an assigned task—it’s unlikely you are at all at fault for the patient’s death. Review you actions objectively. Learn any lessons. But resist the urge to blame yourself.