A Few Practical Thoughts for Dealing with Death in Medicine

Last Updated on January 8, 2019 by

Death is an unfortunately common event in the field of medicine. How do you deal with it? How do you keep from dwelling on it, letting it shape your practice, making you too calloused or too emotional? These are important questions to think about as you begin your journey in patient care.

Accept that it happened. Acknowledging that it is real is a good start to coming to terms with death in your work. It is okay to feel strange about it, upset, angry, even cry, especially at the first exposures. The “stages of grief” may not occur in their formal order for you in these situations, but it is still a good idea to process the event in some fashion. Do not ignore it.

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Talk about it. Even if it was not your first experience with death, but a particularly difficult case for you, if you feel the desire or need to talk about it, do so! This is not an excuse to violate HIPAA, but you can likely find a more senior resident or attendaning who was on the case with you that you can discuss it with. Talk about the details if you need to (of course, only with those privy to that information). This is a good opportunity for team and relationship building with your coworkers. You will learn more about your peers and even yourself if you are able to discuss sober topics such as death.

Humor. Humor is great. It is arguably one of the most important tools you have when facing tough situations. In healthcare, you see a lot of difficult things! Laughing is good for you. It may be okay to use humor to help you process situations, let out some emotion, and lighten the mood. Do use caution however: humor is not appropriate if it interferes in any way with the care you give patients and their families.

Think about the death from a professional stand point. What were the events leading up to it? Was it preventable? How would you have done things differently? Do you know what resources to give family members to aid them in their grief? Do not pass up the opportunity to learn to be a better doctor. Guilt can be an issue when thinking about the event professionally. You may feel like you failed because you were not able to save the patient. Do not dwell on those feelings of guilt or failure. That will not make you a more successful doctor. What will help you is allowing yourself to think of the ways you can improve the next time you are faced with a similar situation.

The death of a patient may not affect you in the same way as the death of your own loved one; that is normal and appropriate. Keeping a considerate, sympathetic, and respectful demeanor when interacting with the patients’ families after their loss will help you to relate successfully and show your personable, caring side. Remember that your patient belongs to a family. Although the patient lost is not your mother or your brother, it will make you a better practitioner to remember that they are someone’s mother, or someone’s brother.

There are several algorithms for saving lives, but none for when you lose a life. There are no tidy to do lists for dealing with death. Professionals will all be different in how they process the loss of patients in their practice, but we can learn from each other and support each other. Taking care of yourself first will help you take care of others. When time and experience build up your wisdom in this area, pass it on for the benefit of all.