How do I deal with attending patient funerals?

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Death is an inevitable outcome of life. We all know it. Nurses spend their days and nights trying to help patients outsmart death or hold it off as long as possible. If nurses work in hospice or palliative care, they don’t prolong life, but they help their patients as they live their last days before death claims them.

Yet despite it being unavoidable, we don’t generally discuss death in our society. We acknowledge it when it occurs, but discussion about death is considered morbid, and we often preface conversations about our own future death or that of loved ones by saying something like “God forbid.”

No Discussion
One side effect of not discussing death is that we may not know or understand what is appropriate when death does occur. Sure, we know about the visitations and funerals, but any discomfort we may feel is usually fueled by inexperience, particularly if the death is of someone of a different faith or culture, whose families may have rituals that we’ve not yet seen.

An issue that faces some nurses in relation to death is that of attending funerals, unsure of the appropriateness of their presence. They may ask, “Is it okay to attend my patient’s funeral?” They aren’t sure if they would be welcome, if it is allowed or if they will personally benefit from this ritual.

Funerals Aren’t for the Dead
It may sound cliché, but funerals aren’t for the dead; they are for the living. Whether the event is a sad and conservative affair or a celebration of life, funerals are a way for people to say good-bye, to have closure. While not everyone needs to attend a funeral to have this closure, the ritual is society’s way of allowing people to do so in a public manner. Attending funerals also allows you to offer support to those who are left behind to mourn.

Nurses are in a unique position when it comes to death. Depending on our area of work, we can see death frequently, even daily. While we don’t usually become immune to death, the nature of our work in certain areas doesn’t allow us to get too attached to patients as they pass through our care.

But what happens when the exceptional patient crosses our path—the one who makes an impact on us or an imprint on our soul even if he wasn’t there for very long? What about the patients for whom we cared over a longer period, such as in hospice or extended care? Many of these patients—and their family members—become dear to us and their death may affect us deeply.

Unless otherwise stated by the families or funeral homes, funerals are generally a public event. Whether held in a religious institution or a funeral home, the doors are usually open for anyone who would like to attend. This means if you feel you would benefit from attending the ceremony, the choice is yours.

Long-term care facilities across the country have begun to acknowledge that caregivers may benefit from attending the funerals of patients. In order to accommodate the staff, some facilities have begun offering space for the families to hold services in the facility itself. This allows not only the family and friends to mourn, but also fellow patients and any staff to attend. Other facilities hold annual or semiannual memorials to which the family members are invited—and, again, allow the staff members to participate.

The Family
Chances are if you have become attached to a patient and her family, the family knows this. It’s not unusual for strong bonds to form between the caregivers and the families. Many families report feeling touched when they spot a nurse or nursing assistant in the crowd, or when they see the name in the guestbook. It’s a good feeling to know that someone you love has touched people enough that they want to come to say good-bye.

Alternately, if a patient has been cared for in a long-term situation, such as in home care, some families express disappointment if a nurse they felt close to didn’t find a way to say good-bye.

Life is full of such richness and such sorrow. If attending a funeral can help alleviate some of the sadness, it could add to the richness by providing you with the memories that helped you.

What do you think about nurses attending patient funerals?

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Marijke Durning

Marijke is a professional writer who began her working career as a registered nurse over 25 years ago. After working in clinical areas ranging from rehab to intensive care, as a floor nurse to a supervisor, she found she could combine her extensive health knowledge with her love of writing. Although she has been published in a wide variety of publications for professionals and the general public, her passion is writing for the every day person to promote health literacy.

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9 Responses to How do I deal with attending patient funerals?

  1. christina

    no–i personally do not feel it is ok to attend patient funerals. i know it may sound harsh but there is a “personal space” that i always maintain with my patients. I care for all of them accordingly and passionately-but i learned throught the years to maintain a certain distance, thats just my own thoughts though.

  2. acey

    I got my start in a LTC/Rehab mix. It was always an honor to have the family invite (for lack of a better word) us to the funeral.

    I would say go if you are invited and emotionally up to it (rule of thumb from nursing school: never cry harder than the family is crying!)

    If there is no specific invitation, use your judgment. Come in quietly, pay your respects quietly, and leave quietly.

  3. Nicole

    I have attended a funeral of a patient. I know it was against the better judgment of “what is expected” of a nurse, how every I had been caring for this patient for over 10 years, and he and his wife became quite friendly with several of the staff members, knew all our names, our kids names, husbands names, and so on. When he passed away, we felt going was more of a professional thing to do. His wife was so thankful to have us there it made this “easier” for her. I believe if we didn’t go, we would have not only lost the respect of the wife, but I believe that it makes our profession cold.

    I do have a girlfirend that is also a nurse, she works in Hem/Onc and has lost several patients. She has attended some of their funerals in the past, until her nurse manager wrote her up for unethical behavior. I can see when there is a very fine line between ethical and unethical….. good topic!

  4. Betty

    I have been a Hospice nurse for 7 years and can tell you that my own experience with attending patient funerals has been a positive one. As said above, funerals are for the living. I cannot express how much it means to families when they see me there. My presence honors the deceased and touches the hearts of those that loved that person. It is a form of ultimate respect and they never forget that.

    While it is important to establish and maintain professional boundaries, to me attending a public event such as a funeral, does not cross that boundary.

  5. Sandy Grambow

    I have gone to those patients funerals that have touched me. I always felt welcomed and humbled that the family appreciated that I took the time to honor their loved one. For myself with my own family members I always felt touched by the individuals who show up for the funeral when you don’t expect them to be there. Those are the ones I remember.

  6. Michele

    I have attended a clients funeral. I was one of her home care nurse. Several of us were invited to attend by the her husband. When it was her time to pass It was almost time for shift change. The husband asked me to stay so I called off the nurse for the next shift. We both held her hand when she went to be with the Lord.

    I also have cared for medically fragile children. I know of several nurses and even doctors who attended the funerals of these children. I think that each individual must decide for himself.

  7. Amy

    I am also in home health and find no greater honor as a nurse than to be welcome into a home to care for a loved one who is dying. I have and will continue to attend funerals of patients I have developed a closer bond with, as it brings a natural closure for both me and the family who I have usually also developed a relationship with.

    I think that each person must decide for themselves what feels right, going or not going, and that will be the right choice for them.

  8. Elaine Risen

    I have been a hospice nurse for nine years and have had many very special patients and families. I have attended many funerals and followed up with families often years following the loss of their loved one and have even been called back months or years later to care for their spouse. I feel the funeral is my last patient visit and is always very well recieved by the family, they are appreciative that I took time out of my day to come and have even been invited to the luncheon following, which I always accept. Any agency which would deny the staff or the families of this great experience should themselves be charged with unethical behavior.

  9. Sia

    I’ve been on both sides of the coin, as a nurse who lost patients and as daughter who lost her father to cancer. I’d say attend if your heart tells you to!

    It was a definite comfort to my family to have the hospice staff attend visitation and services for my father’s funeral. I know if they hadn’t come my mother and sister would have felt in a way that Dad had been slighted, that he didn’t really matter to the staff.
    I have attended funerals for patients that I’d established a deeper rapport with. I’ve never been written up by my supervisor, nor had any complaints.The family expressed appreciation that staff cared enough to come.