Mental health care professionals focus on wellness and improvement in the lives of their patients. We care about our patients. Our responses to the death of a patient can be unexpected and painful. Normal self-care routines may not be sufficient to give ourselves the time and space to reflect and grieve.
The Unexpected Loss
In the event that a patient dies unexpectedly, we may find ourselves reeling from the shock. Sometimes in mental health, the death is self-inflicted, which can leave us with more complicated feelings of grief. The healing process may become complicated by self-blame or self-doubt. We may wonder, “Could I have prevented this?” or, “Why didn’t I see this coming?” It is important to reflect on these thoughts and to seek our own mental health supports.
In the event of an unexpected death of a patient, we may also find ourselves needing some time to process. It may be helpful to talk with fellow colleagues and others at your practice or agency who may have known the patient to process the shock.
The Expected Loss
Many of us in health care often work with patients dealing with chronic or terminal illness. It is important to practice additional self-care when experiencing an impending loss. Also known as “anticipatory grief,” we may experience a grief reaction prior to the loss.
We may find ourselves surprised at the level of our pain even if we have time to prepare for the loss. Even with an expected loss, we should “expect the unexpected.” Our grief may feel cyclical, and feelings of sadness may ambush us without warning.
Providing mental health care to an individual who may be preparing for his or her own death requires us to exercise a higher level of self-care — not only for ourselves, but also to continue to support the patient effectively.
Each mental health provider practices varying levels of self-care. Over the course of our careers, we learn to reevaluate our self-care plan according to the changing demands of our personal and professional lives. When grieving the loss of a patient, it is helpful to re-evaluate our self-care plan. We may need to take a personal day, go on a walk with a loved one, seek our own mental health counseling, reflect on our grief, or consider any number of relaxing and rejuvenating activities. It also may be helpful to review grief frameworks and stages of grief in the literature. Often grief is not a linear process, so we can expect to experience moments that feel better than others. There is not a clear timeline to the grief process and we may find ourselves experiencing grief many months or years after our patient’s death.