I’m not sure how you will cope with death, but I know you will need to cope in nursing. Some of my co-workers when I worked at a nursing home would attend the funerals or prayer services. Which I never did, because I felt I crossed boundaries and funerals in general are just a little ridiculous to me. Nurses have a morbid sense of humor, so bear with me with as little judgment as possible. I find funerals ridiculous, or in the very least awkwardly unbearable. I know, right now your thinking I’m a pretty terrible person. But in all honesty, I really cannot think of anything more ridiculous than a hundred people siting and sobbing uncontrollable while looking on at a dead person laid in a box in the front of the room who has been preserved in the most unnatural of ways. As people walk by the body they may touch their cold, lifeless hands or even leave a little treasure behind for them to take to their grave. All I know, is that I would want people to remember who I was before I died. Going to funerals destroys that for me, because the person in that box is nothing like the person you once knew. What I have found really beautiful is when loved ones choose to have a “celebration of life” instead. Like I said before, everyone has their own way of coping. Funerals may never be my mechanism of coping, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be that much needed closure for you.
As you recall, I worked in long-term care for nearly six years, so death was common for me. Often times I would have patients tell me “they were ready” and so when the time came to see them go, it wasn’t heartbreaking because I had known for a while they didn’t want to live their lives in the confines of a nursing home. I actually found comfort in being the last one to care for my dying patients. I realized that staying with the patient after they had died and preparing them for their family to see them was for me a sense of closure. As odd as it sounds, when no one was looking, I would share out loud my favorite memories of them, as if they could hear me. I would tell them I was praying for them and their family, as if they had never left the room. So when family came and seen their loved one with fresh sheets, their favorite clothes, with a dab of make-up and with their hands nicely folded I could feel as peaceful as they looked. This was one of the ways I coped. It was much harder for me when I was notified after the fact, because I felt like I never got to say goodbye. This was my goodbye to them, and it worked for me.
So is it ok to express your emotions at work? Of course. And sometimes, it is not a conscious decision or something that’s easily controllable. I would say that if your grief over a patient interferes with your ability to care for that patient or family that you should notify your coordinator and go take a break. Go for a walk. Pray. Call a close and trusted friend to share your experience. Is this something you want to do often? Well, not necessarily, but it will happen. You will have to learn how to be calm and distant so you can take the best possible care of your patient. You may need counseling so you are aware of your emotions and how they affect your work. Most respected organizations provide free counselors who understand the stressors are your position in healthcare and who are able to provide much needed support. You will learn lessons over time, and learn to apply those to your career so next time you will be more prepared how to handle the grief of a dying patient and say goodbye in your own way.