Medical Personnel Have to Deal with Grief, Too

By Bruce Hilton Scripps Howard News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 29, 1994 | Go to article overview

Medical Personnel Have to Deal with Grief, Too


Bruce Hilton Scripps Howard News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


THE YOUNG MAN had been in the burn unit for weeks, fighting a battle all the nurses knew he had to lose.

Burned over 90 percent of his body, he bore the painful treatments without complaining. The doctors spoke of his courage as something special, and the nurses would sometimes call in on their days off to find out how he was doing.

And when he died one bleak midnight, one of the nurses began to cry.

The family doctor, who happened to be there with another patient, was livid with anger.

"Leave us!" he told the sobbing nurse. "Don't come back until you can behave like a professional."

It's easy to forget, when we're flat on our backs and in pain, that health professionals suffer, too. In our hope that doctors and nurses can work miracles, we forget that they're human beings.

We forget how often they must say "goodbye."

One reminder of this fact came from Sallie M. Herrle and Bunnie Robinson, nurse supervisors who wrote in Nursing Management about the "turmoil" in a cancer-ward staff when a popular patient died.

Herrle and Robinson say nurses who work with a lot of dying patients "are taught in school to give emotional support to patients and their families, but more often it is the nurse who needs support."

Patient G was a cooperative and genial patient with a devoted wife and two young children - "never demanding, always a pleasure to work with."

As it became clear that Patient G was dying, the nurses' grief showed up in such symptoms as "irritability, argumentativeness, disinterest in the job and even . . . absenteeism."

After G died, "the staff was in an emotional turmoil for a long period of time. . . . Along with the relief (that his ordeal was over) came feelings of guilt and failure."

The turbulence eased, but only after a support group and counseling session gave staff members a chance to express their feelings of loss and anger, guilt and sadness.

One of the hardest things, the group agreed, was the lack of a proper goodbye.

"I went home after my shift," one nurse said, "and when I came in the next morning, he was gone. Somebody else was in his room."

Health-care professionals aren't taught how to deal with their own grieving - nor, usually, with others'. It has been a forbidden subject; stiff upper lip and all that.

Ten years after she started medical school, Dr. Anne Peters wrote, "During those years I learned volumes of facts and information about disease and its many manifestations, but relatively little about an inexorable part of medicine - death. …

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