Clinical Education,  Education,  Nursing School,  Student Nurse,  Undergraduate Education

How To Deal With Death & Dying as a Nursing Student

Ok, we aren’t all me (alright, that was a dumb statement). We didn’t all get into nursing to work in palliative care. But regardless of what area you end up working in as a nurse, you will encounter death and dying. So how can you handle it as a student?

Not everyone is as comfortable with death as I am. Actually, the vast majority of people probably are not as comfortable with death as I am. Let’s say you are part of the 99.9% of society that has a hard time talking about, thinking about or emotionally dealing with death: how do you deal when it is a very real part of your job?

Unlike palliative nurses, you may not be dealing with death every day, but at some point in your career you will be faced with it. Here are some tips on how to prepare yourself for those difficult times:

Be Honest With Yourself.

I know this seems obvious, but you need to talk about your fears and concerns about death before you get too far into your clinical experience. When I was in nursing school a lot of my fellow students were totally unprepared for the emotions that they would butt up against when we did our palliative rotation. Some of the most competent, well read, compassionate, knowledgeable and trustworthy nursing students couldn’t handle death.

Be honest with yourself about your worries and limitations and then find someone you trust to talk to about them. Preferably someone who has some experience with death. If you are a Christian, this could include your pastor who, no doubt, has had to deal with death on several occasions.

Live in tension

This is very rarely anyones strong suit, but to deal with death is to live in tension. The tension exists between this life and the next. Between communication and silence. Between our comfort and comfort care. Even for those of us who feel comfortable handling end of life issues there are things that cause us to live in tension. For example, I’m terrified of dead bodies. That’s right! I, the palliative care nurse, am scared of dead bodies. I get over it after a few seconds, but I have to walk in that tension.

There will be things about death that are hard for you. I don’t know what your thing will be, but I want you to be free to sit in tension. It is ok to feel that pull in two different directions. Sometimes, it’s even healthy. Being a believer in Christ also calls us to live in tension between heaven and earth, justice and injustice, and right and wrong. Embrace it and you’ll grow from it. I pinky promise.

Don’t Do It Alone

Whenever I feel uncomfortable with something in my practice, I ask for help. One time, I had a patient’s family request a meeting with me and their extended family. I knew there were lots of family dynamics and not everyone was on board with palliative care. Death can sometimes bring out the worst in people. I told my case coordinator that I wasn’t comfortable walking into that situation by myself, so she came with me. Having someone there to help me with the big uncomfortable things has always helped me deal with them.

In the clinical setting, you should have your teacher, your buddy nurse and your fellow students there to help you. No teacher worth anything is going to say you should walk into a situation you are uncomfortable with 100% unsupported. So don’t be afraid to ask.

Hopefully these three things will make it a little bit easier for you to deal with death and dying as a nursing student. Death isn’t easy. It is hard to handle emotionally, even for nurses like me who deal with it daily. But it is a part of life and a very real part of healthcare. Don’t shy away, embrace it and see how far you can go.

I’m rooting for you,

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