How Do You Cope When a Healthcare Colleague Dies?

Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC - 05/14/19

As nurses and healthcare professionals working in the world of medicine, it’s all too common for us to experience patient deaths. But what happens when it’s a colleague who dies?

Grief, Loss, and Death: A Human Experience

Whether expected or unexpected, we’ve all likely needed time to recover from the death of a patient who was personally meaningful to us. Not all deaths are the same, and every time we grieve, that grief may be somewhat different – and somewhat similar-- from the last time we went through this universal passage.

It’s likely that not all of us have suffered the loss of a colleague, but since death eventually visits us all and many of us have professional lives lasting decades, the chances are relatively high of a colleague dying at some point in our career. 

A Colleague’s Story of Suicide

Back in the first decade of the century, I was deeply involved in work with underserved communities where HIV and AIDS were common. At that time, there was a local doctor who had dedicated his life to improving the health of those infected. His dedication and compassion were so deep that he chose to periodically take various antiretroviral medications so that he could feel the side effects and more fully understand his patients’ symptoms and complaints.

Some years ago, the story emerged that this heartfelt yet difficult work had taken its toll on his mental health and family. Those who knew him well already had a sense of his psycho-emotional struggles. One night, without informing anyone of his intentions, this kind and highly successful doctor slit his own throat and violently ended his own life. Needless to say, the news reverberated throughout the community and beyond, and patients and colleagues alike reeled from the shock.

Suicide among physicians is all too common. These individuals go through enormous amounts of education, incur significant debt, and are frequently faced with difficult work conditions, the suffering of patients, and a feeling of hopelessness when patients cannot be helped in the way we desire. Healthcare can be unforgiving in its relentlessness, and we have to steel ourselves for the hard times, whatever our position or responsibilities.

 The Pursuit of Healing

Healthcare providers – including nurses – are not always so skilled at making sufficient investments in personal wellness. Like anyone else, we have diabetes, stress, mental illness, hypertension, cancer, HIV, or other conditions, and our personal struggles are deeply personal. And when we experience loss, we need support as much as the next person experiencing the throes of grief

If you lose a beloved colleague, some forms of self-care are essential for you to move through your grieving journey on the way to healing; these include but are not limited to:

  • Take time: Loss and grief are impactful. If your colleague died and you’re having difficulty, take time off to rest and recover.
  • Talk about it with your colleagues:Have you ever seen a group of doctors and nurses work like crazy to save a patient, and then just move on to the next person in need without acknowledging what just happened? If you lose a colleague, talk about it and express what you’re feeling (and encourage others to do the same).
  • Get help: If the sadness is too much or you’ve entered the realm of depression or complicated grief, seeing a psychotherapist, grief counselor, or faith leader for support is a sign of strength. Your place of employment may have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), so that’s another place to turn. Get the help you need, and set an example for your peers by telling them how you’re coping.
  • Be honest: If you’re having a hard time with the loss, acknowledge it to yourself, tell trusted peers and friends, a family member, or talk about it with a counselor or medical provider.
  • Stay in touch: Your feelings can be buried under the guise of being “busy”; stay in touch with your feelings, recognize that they’re valid, and know that you need to move through grief just like anyone else.
  • Keep it real: Just because you’re a medical provider doesn’t mean you’re infallible or that there’s a handy shortcut around grief.

The pursuit of healing is universal and one of the most important activities that we can engage in as human beings. When we have the strength to embrace our own grief, loss, vulnerability, and recovery, it can empower us to help our patients even more when they’re facing life’s most difficult moments.