How do I deal with attending patient funerals?

Image: George Doyle | Stockbyte | Thinkstock

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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